Imagine a Somatic Solution to the Hazards of Stress
Whether it’s a slow car in the fast lane, a fast truck in the slow lane, the sudden realization that your phone is missing, or worrying about next year’s storm, how quickly and vividly will your mind and body deliver a high velocity jolt of stress? This acute reaction, known as the “fight, flight (or freeze”) response can cause a real or fantasized stressor to make you Hyper. Metabolic, that is.
In animals, threat arouses the stimulatory, sympathetic, fight or flight stress response. For humans, short-term arousal helps us navigate the complex social systems in which we work and live. An acute dose of stress will mobilize and energize you, and some believe even boost your creativity. However, chronic unrelenting stress, or a hyper/hypo metabolic seesaw, create wear and tear on body, mind and soul.
In animals, as threat fades, the parasympathetic nervous system circuitry “tamps everything back down to a baseline flickering” (Angier, 2009). But, alas, we humans have a brain that often thinks too much and can extract phantom threats from innocuous situations—an office meeting, a school dance, or a misheard word in a conversation. Over time, continual hyper-activation of the stress response can and does cause physical, mental, emotional and even social difficulties. “Reactions that are desirable in limited, targeted quantities become hazardous in promiscuous excess” (Angier, 2009).
So, imagine this. If phantom threats, fantasized fears or memories of actual trauma can bring about sympathetic arousal, does it not follow that a state of experienced calm and health can be vibed-up?
It makes sense then that getting friendly with our parasympathetic systems and developing more positive thinking habits, will enable us to better deal with stress, feel better physically and cope better in general.
The plasticity and resiliency of the brain make it possible to reform our stinkin’ thinkin’, and change ineffective coping patterns by reimagining more positive and productive mental mages. In this way we can stave off the hazards of unabated distress. Using imagination to change thinking and alter behavior is often referred to as creative visualization, a proven process for restorative results.
To potentiate these results, somatic sensing partnered with visualization taps the body’s innate memory, allowing the brain to anchor creative images and their somatic sensations into an integrated and wisely corrective new gestalt.
There are a variety of ways you and your clients can benefit from the combination of imagination and somatic sensing. One of my favorite ways to employ this dynamic duo is with an exercise called “The Healing Room.”
With the Healing Room exercise you can refresh your Self, enhance therapy with an individual client or as I enjoy doing, create greater cohesion, connection and compassion among members in a group. In whatever context, breathing is the key to the realm of parasympathetic peace.
I invite you to take a moment to breathe gently and settle into a comfortable position. As you relax, become aware of tension or discomfort in your body. Breathing easily, imagine breathing in calm with each inhale and releasing discomfort with each out breath.
Next, imagine a place, real or not, past or present, where you feel at peace. Notice your thoughts and feelings as your place comes into focus. Look around. See colors, textures and shapes. Listen to sounds. Waves lapping? Leaves rustling? Birds singing? People talking? Feel the softness of sand or moss under your feet. Experience your place with full sensuality.
When you are ready, you can imagine healing equipment in your place, including doctors, intuitive healers, or wise elders with whom you can consult. You can create secret salves, massage tables, cabinets filled with medicines and supplements that work. Everything you can imagine is available in this inner dimension of the mind.
Take some time to feel the ways in which you are being restored to health. Focus attention on what it feels like to be in perfect harmony on every level of body, mind and soul. Feel, see and sense these sensations in vivid detail as you memorize the somatic sensations of perfect health and inner peace.
When you are ready, take a gentle breath and come back, feeling refreshed in every part of your body and mind.
We all have an innate ability to imagine mental images that can be metaphorically targeted to alleviate specific symptoms, bring about stress relief and promote greater health and well-being. Your images don’t have to be anatomically or photographically accurate to be effective.
Simply use imagination with a full sensory palette and your unique creativity, and believe in the healing capacities of your body’s parasympathetic power. Somatic sensing and visualization will bring your intentions forward to be recognized and realized.
The more you utilize imagination and somatic sensing with your clients and with yourself, the more you will experience the way body and brain can realize and absorb new thoughts, feelings and sensations into the mind/body memory bank.
Imagination and the body sing an amazing duet. Together they can reduce the wear and tear of stress, increase the somatic and psychological vibrancy of health, and anchor a new sense of well being into the wise knowing of essential Self.
Bette J. Freedson, LCSW is a clinical social worker, certified group psychotherapist, and the author of Soul Mothers’ Wisdom: Seven Insights for the Single Mother. Bette’s specialties include stress management, parenting issues, recovery from trauma and the development of intuitive insight. She maintains a private practice in southern Maine with her husband, Ray Amidon, LMFT.
Angier, N. (2009). Brain is a co-conspirator in a vicious stress loop. New York Times.