Supportive somatic mindfulness exercise
Use this exercise to orient to the present moment, calm yourself, and help with anxiety and emotional escalation.
The exercise in this video will guide you in a somatic (body) mindfulness exercise to help your body de-escalate from a stress state and orient to the present moment. If you experience a significant amount of overwhelm or increased distress when closing your eyes, simply keep them open and locate a neutral or pleasant object in your environment. I learned this practice through western trauma resolution techniques of somatic experiencing and organic intelligence, however, there are parallel practices in various cultures and bodies of work.
This exercise invites you to use your attention and supportive feedback from your internal and external experience to build a sense of wellness and de-escalation of stress response. Due to our brain's evolved negativity bias, when we feel stressed and escalated, our body looks for signs to confirm that we should feel activated. By using your attention to attune to sensations and stimuli that are neutral or pleasant, you allow your body to connect to experiences that foster calm, de-escalation, and enjoyment.
When your body attunes to neutral or positive feedback from your internal or external world, the experience of threat softens. This is especially important in situations where we do not need our threat response to be active (responding to old triggers/stimuli) or where showing activation could be dangerous (navigating systems of oppression). As you tune into neutral or positive stimuli, you may notice a change in your breathing, muscle tension, stomach tension (burps, gurgles), yawns, or feelings of strength or calm. These are all signs that your parasympathetic nervous system is turning on and your body is responding to cues that it is okay to calm down.
Emotional regulation is the term psychologists use to refer to our ability to identify and ride the waves of our emotions without negative consequences to ourselves or others. A better term for it might be physiological regulation, since our emotions and perceptions of distress cause physiological responses in our bodies. Our ability to emotionally regulate is influenced by our holding environment (caregivers, those in our household, teachers, friends, and social world), our culture, ethnicity, gender, immigration experiences, etc. Our ability to emotionally regulate is also deeply impacted by experiences of trauma, which leave the body with unresolved survival instincts and dis-regulation in the nervous system.
We grow up with successful emotional regulation when, as children, we are held through our emotional distress with attunement (someone seeing and reflecting what we are experiencing without punishment or judgment) and boundaries (no one in our holding environment is allowed to do abusive or violent things because of feelings). When this occurs, we learn to identify feelings, be compassionate with ourselves, and behave in appropriate ways with ourselves and others.
If we were not given these opportunities growing up or experienced disruption from trauma or oppression, we may notice that we frequently experience overwhelm and distress. Instead of weaving between activation and de-activation, we are dis-regulated and moving between heightened or frozen nervous system states. The following are signs of a dis-regulated nervous system:
- you go from 0-10 in seconds flat
- you have difficulty coming back to a calm and balanced state once you
- you frequently feel you need to get angry or leave the situation to manage
your emotional state
- you grew up with parents or in social settings that punished, minimized, or
mocked your emotional needs
- you experienced severe or prolonged emotional, physical, or psychological
trauma and have difficulty distinguishing between safety and threat
- you experience frequent anxiety and have difficulty relaxing, unplugging, and
- you feel frequently low mood or depression and difficulty moving into action
(indicative of freeze)
By practicing somatic mindfulness, we can learn to support our bodies through distressing experiences in a way that will lower our stress and allow us to have more control over our actions. Orienting our attention to the present moment and using the support of neutral or pleasant sensations within or outside of our bodies can assist our nervous system in managing stress response.
For more information about why this works, stress response in the body, or the impact of trauma on emotional regulation: