Whether it’s the holidays, the election hangover, or financial woes, we all get used to a certain stress baseline that becomes our new normal. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? These days, there are many targeted modalities to help us unwind, from the garden varieties of stress to more significant traumas.
And don’t underestimate the power or seemingly ordinary triggers (hint: politics counts) that can evoke the trauma response. To define trauma, here’s simple working definition: anything that is too much, too soon, or too fast for our nervous system to handle, especially if we can’t find a way to resolve it.
Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. In essence, your nervous system gets “stuck.” While talk therapy can help, body-centered therapies that directly access the nervous system and get the energy moving may be your best bet.
For stress, trauma, and everything in between, here are three of the best trauma-relieving methods that you’ve probably never heard of.
When faced with stress or adversity, our nervous system jumps into action—typically the fight, flight or freeze response. Although the purpose of our autonomic nervous system is to regulate, it can easily become dysregulated, particularly when our response to trauma gets restricted. As a result, the body continues to respond as if it is under threat, even when the stimulus is no longer present.
The premise of Somatic Experiencing, which was founded by Peter Levine two decades ago, is that the negative effects of trauma—such as anxiety, hypervigilance, aggression and shame—result from denying the body the opportunity to fully process the traumatic event.
Levine’s approach grew out of his observation of wild animals, who he noted recovered quickly from traumatic events through literally shaking off the effects of trauma in a process called discharging. In the wild, discharging looks like gentle trembling, shaking, deep breaths, sweating, all behaviors that reset the nervous system to a pre-threat level of functioning. Apparently, experts repeatedly told Levine that if animals were unable to complete the discharge process, they would die.
Somatic Experiencing seeks to find ways for people to effectively discharge their trauma. It works on the principle that since trauma happens in the body, to heal trauma, the body needs to be the primary resource.
Our bodies have the power to overcome overwhelming experience with resilience and find new responses that take us out of helplessness. It invites us to notice what happens when we are triggered and encourages us to trust our natural self-protective impulses.
When we can slow down our trauma response and become more mindful, we experience the actual reality that the danger is over and we can finally settle, bringing the entire cycle to completion.
Here’s how it works: While thinking of or talking about your memories, you’ll focus on other stimuli like eye movements, hand taps and sounds. For example, your therapist will move his or her hand, and you’ll follow this movement with your eyes. The belief is that eye movements invoke bilateral stimulation, which has a therapeutic effect. It helps fragmented memories become reprocessed so that they become more coherent and less disruptive.
It’s worth noting that there have a been a sufficient amount of studies to support EMDR’s claims: It has been accepted as an effective form of treatment by several major health organizations including the World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Defense.
Discovered in 2003 by David Grand, Brainspotting is an in-depth therapeutic process that works, similar to EMDR, with the visual field to access both trauma and healing. Both therapies attempt to help clients reprocess negative events and retrain emotional reactions, but whereas EMDR dives deeper into the traumatic memories, brainspotting focuses more on one’s actual eye position during therapy.
Brainspotting’s credo, says Grand, is “where you look affects how you feel.” This translates into using eye movements as way to transform emotional patterning. Brainspotting works by bypassing our rational brain in favor of the more body-based, intuitive areas of our brain.
The brainspot, or hotspot, is typically the eye position activated by strong emotion and which correlates to a particular issue. Client and therapist work together to pinpoint the brainspot–telltale clues include an increase in reflexive eye or body movements, such as blinking, swallowing, yawning, head or body twitches.
The body might feel a specific charge when it looks in a certain direction. Targeting the brainspot lets the brain have a chance to reprocess an earlier trauma without being overwhelmed by it. Because it’s so direct, issues can get resolved quickly and without clients having to actually relive the intensity of the original trauma.