“I was going to put this newsletter out last week . . .” Do you know the feeling?
Maybe you find yourself getting behind. You tell yourself you’re going to tackle those projects, but you flip on the TV and next thing you know hours have passed. You get mad at yourself and vow to start again tomorrow. Creative ideas percolate into your mind but don’t seem to take root. Even easy things overwhelm you at times.
Maybe you start “shoulding” on yourself, trying to bully yourself into action. But you end up feeling worse and then comfort the pain with food, substances, shopping, or TV as you shut down to avoid that little frantic feeling inside. You may get angry at others rather than feel the uncomfortable feelings inside.
Most people would diagnose this dilemma as procrastination or even depression. But let’s look deeper. Let see what is happening when we view your life from the point of view of the body and nervous system. A very different picture emerges as we look deeper. Procrastination may mean that the body is simply trying to avoid reliving a stress or trauma in order to keep from being overwhelmed.
When a life event overwhelms your body’s ability to escape or defend itself, the uncompleted impulse to protect gets trapped in the nervous system. Like icebergs lurching through the nervous system, they weigh you down and take up your energy. But once you turn the power of your conscious attention on the body, these patterns can melt and drain out of the body. These unprocessed traumas take up space and effect the way you think and feel and even see the world. They show up as procrastination, anxiety or irritability. You may have experienced some of these common challenges:
- Digestive problems
- You don’t enjoy things that used to bring you pleasure, colors and tastes seem dull.
- Your pain doesn’t seem to get better
- You find it difficult to really relax
- You can’t get to sleep or you could sleep 18 hours a day making it difficult to get out of bed
- You procrastinate and the last-minute-rush-to-meet-a-deadline pulls you out of the doldrums, leaving chaos and conflict in your wake
- Basic daily tasks start piling up
- You struggle with depression, anxiety or panic
- You may feel numb or blank and have memory problems
- Fearful memories may intrude and trigger anxious feelings from ordinary events
These seemingly unrelated issues have one thing in common: The body’s natural ability to cope has started to go numb to reserve its resources. Peter Levine discovered 4 phases that wild animals go through when they face danger and it formed the basis for his Somatic Experiencing process for healing trauma.
When At Risk, How Wild Animals Protect Themselves:
Fight – the sympathetic nervous system ( S N S) mobilizes to protect itself, muscles tighten, heart rate increases, breathe gets shallow, thoughts race, and vision focuses laser like on the danger. You may experience these same feelings and call them irritation or anxiety.
Flight – when an animal is unable to defend itself, the sympathetic nervous system ( S N S) triggers them to run to safety,
Freeze – When the animal is unable to get away, it goes into state that appears to be frozen in immobility, like playing possum, but inside it is in red alert, ready to flee given an opening if the predator gets distracted or moves away to defend its meal. For the prey animal, It’s like having the brakes on while the gas is floored. Many people walk around in this state without realizing it.
Shut down – when the prey animal knows there is no way out, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) slowly dials down sensations to make death painless and gentle.
Your body goes through the same four phases, but you don’t come across many tigers in your daily life. The stress and challenges of modern life are much harder to fight or flee from. So they stay stuck in the body, taking up resources, trying to fight a battle that can’t be won, but also can’t let go of either.
By the time you get through the travails of modern life, such as medical and dental procedures, sports injuries, car accidents, bullying, job stress or death of loved one, your body has many stored experiences where you were unable to fight or flee. You can’t fix the problem and you must endure it. And to complicate these challenges, the stories you tell yourself, draw the double bind even tighter, preventing the body from letting go.
The body tries to offer us protection through immobility responses and patterns of shut down. Many people flow in and out of these states, diagnosing themselves with anxiety, or depression, bipolar disorder, procrastination, or anger management problems. When in reality, the body performing based on 500 million years of evolutionary survival skills: Fight, flight, freeze and shut down.
Getting off the Merry Go Round of “Shoulding on Yourself”, Blame and Guilt.
You start by trusting and befriending your body. You listen and follow subtle body sensations. These sensations are wise messengers, ready to free us from the stories and patterns that keep us repeating the same frustrating patterns over and over. Instead of listening to the Inner Critic via the neo cortex, you can simply notice what sensations or numbness rises up and then simmers down. This practice launches your body into a healing response that completes and releases these old patterns.
This deep form of trusting the body may be very new to you. You don’t try to breathe a certain way. You don’t try to relax. You don’t try to distract yourself with work. You don’t do visualizations or affirmations. You simply observe the body with curiosity and compassion. When you do this, an ancient and wise organic intelligence starts to work. Your body wants to feel good naturally.
From time to time you look around the room at what brings your eyes pleasure. This simple act of looking around helps you stay in the present where your body’s wisdom is most powerful.
After a time, a deep breath will come in naturally. You may yawn. Your eyes may water. Your stomach may gurgle, as you come out of immobility, or stuck fight / flight patterns. You may feel a sense of flow, tingling or aliveness start to dawn, and you naturally look around and see how the world looks. Like Sleeping Beauty (another trauma story!), with a little kindness and affection, you emerge from your waking coma to re-enter your life again, a little more whole, a little more engaged.
Connect and inquire
When gently working with these patterns, you may feel a heaviness in your body, a restlessness or a tense muscle. These sensations may be one of the stored icebergs coming into awareness so you can start healing. It could be old emotions, an injury, a fight or flight posture. It doesn’t matter. We do not need to know what it is. Your job is easy. Just observe and see what happens next.
- With gentle and loving awareness, connect directly with the body sensation from the inside.
- Remind yourself that it has an important message. It is there to solve a problem or keep you safe.
- Gently inquire to see what the body says with its language of sensation. Soften the mind and its drive to analyze.
- Wait with openness and curiosity for whatever arises next. If your body is in a shutdown state you may feel nothing, which is very important to notice and explore. Map out the numbness in your body. Then give it lots of time to unfold. You might notice very subtle sensations like inner trembling, a shift from cool to warm or tingling. These are very positive helpful responses after numbness.
- When you connect and observe, you change your relationship with your body and nervous system, potentiating the body’s ability to heal.
When you’ve done a few minutes of this, look around the room, see what interests you, what gives your eyes pleasure. You may notice a little more calm, a slight sense of well-being, feel less critical of yourself. You may have a little more energy.
Peter Levine reminds us that wild animals are rarely traumatized, because they automatically allow these physiological processes to help them return to normal after a narrow escape from death. You may experience your body shaking, trembling, your arms and legs moving. Your mind tells you “stop doing that, it’s weird!”
But these natural responses are signs that the body is blowing off stress, shaking off the frozen energy of trauma and stress. This natural process allows the body to return to a relaxed state. When you are unable to process trauma shock, the brain continues to release high levels of adrenaline and cortisol. Then this survival energy becomes trapped in the body. In the case of procrastination, your body cannot sustain such high levels of activation, so it provides the calming relief of a partial shutdown state.
Make it Gentle and Easy
The benefit of observing the body, is that you do not have to remember or even know the initial cause. You don’t have to re-live or re-tell any traumatic events. Simply noticing and inviting little pods of body memories to come to your attention, allows them to dissipate.
Using these simple methods allows you to connect with the innate intelligence of your body, and override the analyzing mind for a time.
It can be helpful to do this with an understanding friend, or a therapist, to help you stay focused.
So if you struggle with procrastination, gently remind yourself that you can start to unravel this frustrating pattern. It does not have rule your life, chase away loved ones, or keep you isolated. You can make a difference, and you can start by being understanding and listen to your body.
You can allow your body to reclaim its natural energy, aliveness and well-being. All this, just by quietly listening and feeling.
An excellent resource if you want to learn more: Peter Levine’s book Healing Trauma: a Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body contains a simple explanation and guide to befriending your body and releasing trauma. You can do this alone or with a caring support, with the help of a CD containing exercises to help you gently reclaim You!
Call us if you’d like to find a better way to deal with procrastination, anxiety, stress or depression