As the COVID-19 crisis has still-unfolding consequences for our families, communities and society, so too does it affect our bodies. Even if we are free of the virus ourselves, we may be experiencing enormous stress, which can manifest itself psychologically, physically as well as in the uncertain space in between. Hours of sitting still on phone calls and Zoom meetings, and even during leisure activities like watching TV, have become vaguely uncomfortable as staying inside has led us to forget about our bodies. How can we locate our stress and trauma in these situations, so that we can properly address it?
We sat down with Rabbi Arielle Hanien, a former Sinai and Synapses Fellow who is also a psychotherapist trained in Somatic Experiencing, to discuss practical tips for relating to ourselves and each other during this difficult time.Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: Hi everyone, my name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, I’m the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, which bridges the worlds of religion and science.
And I’m thrilled to be sitting – not here, she’s actually across the country from where I am right now – but [with] my friend Rabbi Arielle Hanien, who is a former Sinai and Synapses Fellow. She’s been involved in the work that we’ve been doing for a long time and she is ordained as a rabbi. She was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, but is also a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and psychotherapist. And a lot of the work that she is doing is integrating what happens in our body to help us be more psychologically and spiritually whole, because so many of our emotions actually reside in our bodies, and we’re not always as in touch with how we’re feeling, and how that resides in our stomach, in our shoulders, in our whole body here.
And she also does a lot of work in terms of trauma. As COVID-19 has really taken over the world, all of us experiencing different emotions and a variety of emotions, often within the same hour. And in a collective sense of – I think trauma would be the right word, to be able to think about what we’re all experiencing here. I’m thrilled to be able to talk with her and learn from her wisdom and her experience in thinking about a lot of these questions. So Arielle, I’m really glad to be able to talk with you here.
Arielle Hanien: Thank you so much Geoff. It’s a pleasure to explore this with you.
Geoff Mitelman: So I’d love to just, if you could talk a little bit from the beginning of – what is somatic experiencing, and what does that mean, how why is that valuable and important, particularly now, as we’re all sitting on our couch predominantly at least for the last three months, two months?
Arielle Hanien: Yeah, it’s funny that you refer to that posture specifically, right, because that used to be what we would associate with psychoanalysis.
Geoff Mitelman: Right.
Arielle Hanien: Traditional, early forms of psychotherapy was actually lying down on a couch and talking. Psychology really evolved from that beginning, but was always primarily logotherapy, and just mediated by our cognition. The way some of us are feeling, like our social contact, has now become this sort of attenuated experience that’s mediated through screens and words, and no, you know, arm around each other or high-fiving, or the warmth and kind of energy of being in a room together, clinking water glasses.
Somatic experiencing is a modality that really changed the way we do psychotherapy around trauma. And it was developed out of a realization that trauma and traumatic energy is something that is happening inside of the body. Essentially, trauma is an experience that overwhelms the body’s natural defensive responses. It overwhelms us in the moment. So trauma can be something that overwhelms one person’s nervous system and not another person’s who is in the same room, just because of the state that that nervous system was and its history, but it has a long-term disregulating effect. And it has to do with the stress hormones that are released throughout the body, and the amount of energy produced, and whether it gets discharged or not, but essentially, the overwhelm of trauma disregulates a natural harmony that the body is constantly, naturally, under ordinary circumstances, restoring and replenishing.
So you think of having a hard day and then getting a good night’s sleep, or being really startled by something, but eventually catching your breath, and realizing “Oh, it was just the wind pulling the door shut.” Or “You know what, this news I got about a change in my workplace, it’s actually not so bad, it creates an opportunity.”
Whereas with trauma, there’s a disregulation that happens, and something gets stuck, and the body isn’t able to sort of reorganize in a way that brings the whole of that experience back into harmonious function. And the challenge with traditional psychotherapy is that we weren’t even paying attention to the body. We could describe often our emotions, and emotions are inherently physical, but in describing our emotions, and sometimes pathologizing them or feeling a lot of shame around them, or just feeling like they don’t make sense because, you know, we’re cognitively aware if something hasn’t touched us personally, or it happened in the past. We’re really working in a different realm, which is the realm of thought and cognition. And somatic experience, it was really – even this name that I thought for a long time was kind of a mouthful and I now appreciate for its authenticity – it’s an invitation to notice the experience that we’re having in our soma, the cells of our body.
We are not trained to do this. Our culture doesn’t kind of invite us from a young age to notice what it feels like when our tummy is grumbling. Our society is very functionally, kind of tactically, oriented, so what we want to do is train ourselves to recognize that that means we’re hungry – and we need to feed ourselves – but there’s actually really profound insight to be gained that can sometimes change the experience we’re having in our body by noticing, for example, when our tummy is grumbling, what the vibration feels like, where it is. If there’s, let’s say, a soothing quality to it on one level, or something that interests us and kind of makes us giggle when we pay attention to it, tuning in on that level can actually bring us into an experience of being much more grounded, so that we can be aware of the fact that we’re hungry and lunch, you know, maybe isn’t for another 27 minutes, but we’re not experiencing anxiety, because there’s something more compelling and soothing and regulating that our body is enjoying being in tune with. And so we’re not getting stuck in all of the feelings that scarcity, or having to be patient for what isn’t around yet, bring up for us, you know, exacerbated by the fact that we really are undernourished at the moment, and so we’re not at our best.
So somatic experiencing is really about tuning in and and being able to glide through our experience in ways that help us be in touch with what is more subtle and less overwhelming. And the effect tends to be that we’re able to work through little bits of the material that otherwise would be overwhelming. And in this way, we can kind of untangle of some of the tangle of even big traumas, and resolve them, and release that from the body.
Geoff Mitelman: There was a video that I saw a couple days ago from a YouTube educator that I love, a guy named CGP Grey, and he does a lot of really fun stuff, and it’s, you know, sort of cartoonish, but it’s really interesting and has great metaphors. And one of the things that he talked about is that “We are all on a spaceship where you are isolated from everybody else.” And what we have to do is keeping the core primed. And there’s the physical, and there’s the mental. And you need the physical health and the mental health, and they feed each other, right. So if you’re able to help one, you can help the other, and you need to make sure that both of them stay primed.
But if you’ve got to prime just one, start with the physical, because you have more handholds there. It’s easier to be able to say “Let me go for a walk” than to be able to say “Well, let me calm down now.” It’s very hard to say – because I’ve got a six-year-old and a four-year-old, and telling my child “Calm down,” that’s not productive. We do this as adults, of being able to say “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be okay.” All that language, that actually can be very counterproductive, because it minimizes the negative pieces.
Or being able to say “Oh my God, it’s the worst thing ever,” that can amplify it.
But “Let me acknowledge and accept how I’m feeling” – I did a little bit of work with John Kabat-Zinn in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Clinic. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, of being able to just see and acknowledge “These are your thoughts, your feelings, your sensations,” nonjudgmentally, and not be like “Oh my God, why am I not sitting here silently for 35 minutes, I’m such a terrible meditator.” Just like – “Oh, that’s interesting that my feet are hurting. Oh, I’m noticing that I’m losing my patience with my children more,” and looking at that in a non-judgmental kind of way, it may be easier to start with the physical pieces of that, because we can see that more easily and can potentially even change that more easily than we can change our mental state.
Arielle Hanien: You know, it’s interesting, there’s something else behind that also that makes it easier. I sometimes think of our old model of the brain, you know, as this phenomenal and fragile and all-important organ residing in our skull, in economic terms. And the way we talk about trickle-down economics, we’ve sort of had that model, you know, with this kind of vertical bias in our head, that “If only we get our thoughts straight,” – and this is Plato also – “everything else will fall into order.”
But what we now understand is that the nervous system exists throughout the body. And the phenomenal neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said in a lecture a couple of years ago where I met him, “It’s wonderful that we are recognizing that emotions are physiological.” He said, “It’s really terrific that we’re speaking about the gut brain. But we’re calling it ‘the second brain.’” This enteric nervous system, you know, where we have gut instinct and we really feel things, and where serotonin is produced, and now we’re talking about nutrition, among other ways to address physical and mental health.
So there’s only one problem. We’re calling the gut brain the “second brain,” and it’s not. It’s the first brain, in evolutionary terms, and also in terms of the information throughout the nervous system. There is more information coming from the body, into the brain that we’re used to thinking about, than the reverse. And that’s very important from a survival perspective, because we’ve all got something very, very smart up here, but it’s metabolically inefficient, and it would take a long time to sort out if I opened the door – we’ll imagine for a moment that I’m indoors – and I’m opening the door of my office and there’s a lion in there. My very smart brain could assess “I might try struggling with the lion, I might faint and play dead, I might turn around and see if I can, you know, jump through the window, I might try to close the door again,” but I would be eaten before I sorted out what the best option is.
My body, on the other hand, picks up on the threat immediately, and I probably scream and make a terrified face that can actually startle the lion. And I might slam the door shut, just out of a kind of combined startle response, or somebody else in the room might see what’s going on from three feet away, notice the client is in shock from my, you know, wide-eyed, kind of terrifying look, and they might be able to slam the door shut. So it’s really great that most of the time we are functioning not on our higher thinking, but based on the information in the body.
So when we are able to take measures to really be present with what’s happening in the body, like “How much anxiety am I feeling at the moment as I sit down to my important Zoom conference, and does some of it have to do with the fact that I really have to pee, actually?” And so I’m already kind of constrained in my experience. I mean, there’s a reason – you’ll pardon my example, this is coming up all the time, even with clients – that we have expressions like “to relieve oneself,” or “how’s the chair?” Never mind “How is the lighting?”, and “Is it a flattering view?” and “What if my room is visible behind me?” But am I, on an unconscious level, counting the seconds that I have to sit in this position, because I feel like I’m getting the quarantine Zoom version of bedsores? Or can I set myself up in a way that I actually have support behind my back, it’s kind of ergonomic, there’s a soft texture, you know, on a pillow or a blanket near me, there are pleasant pictures off to the side that fill me with a sense of “Oh, I loved that vacation.” And I notice that I’m able to breathe in this kind of yummy way, and then more of me is present.
In other words, the feeling of safety in the body actually enhances my ability to think. It enhances peripheral vision, and it enhances creative thought. It enhances my ability to see something from your perspective and to understand what you’re saying, rather than constantly dealing on the physiological level with the fact that I already feel constricted, plus there’s a pandemic, and I’m not sure that I can, you know, afford to budge out of what I’ve figured out so far that is helping me be functional, when you think we need to “take a radical approach to our marketing campaign that we’ve never done before,” right. I’m just kind of able to be more in the fullness of this container that is actually always enabling me to function.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, that leads nicely, because the last question that I want to be able to explore with you here is: Given the experience that you have had and, beforehand, you were saying that this is – the work that you’ve done with trauma survivors, it’s not that you’re getting lots of new clients, that everybody is sort of experiencing this collectively. What are a couple of either strategies, or things to be aware of, that people can be thinking about when we’re not even aware, necessarily, of how we’re always feeling, the level of physical isolation – what are some things that would be either helpful knowledge or helpful strategies for people to be able to survive the next however many weeks or months we’re going to be dealing with this?
Arielle Hanien: Yeah, great question. So I have been mentioning, and this, again, as you say, is always true, but to clients in our trauma clinic – “you really have an advantage now.” This is kind of Jung’s idea of the wounded healer. You know, when we’ve discovered the skills to address this, it helps us deal with a lot of life in the world at large. And the truth is that most of us have experienced, and certainly are experiencing, something overwhelming that disregulates us. We don’t all end up in intensive trauma treatment, it doesn’t occur to a lot of us to go there, or we wouldn’t grant ourselves that. But there’s already something very universal about the thirst for the kind of knowledge that we can come back into.
So, one of the things I would say that’s primary is what you mentioned about your mindfulness practice – which is, under the broader umbrella of “We are really hard on ourselves in a lot of ways,” curiosity, nonjudgmental curiosity, about our own experience, is really helpful. And it tends to yield information. So asking questions, rather than putting ourselves down, or noticing details, and looking for the next detail that might come into our awareness, rather than registering alarm or judgment at whatever detail we notice. Or recognizing what state we’re in in the moment, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, and then just being watchful for what happens next, so we can notice shifts happening – that’s invaluable, that’s a valuable one. It can be a huge relief, because it keeps us from getting locked into how we are feeling not good in the moment, and then feeling bad about our feeling not-good, and just making it worse. So really trying to open with curiosity. And one thing that can support this is what neuroscientists and other biophysiologists will tell us, and also what spiritual traditions tend to appreciate, which is that we are wondrously made, or magnificently evolved, as, in a way, self-healing organisms.
I mean, there is just tremendous intelligence that is happening in our bodies that we don’t fully understand, even as a scientific community, right. I remember getting my first paper cut in 1st grade, and I learned it was called a paper cut, and how much it hurt, right. But I’ve had paper cuts throughout my life and they’re completely invisible in my body. It’s not a top research priority to figure out how the body actually heals them with no scarring and minimal pain, how we can tune them out, or how our body even knows instantly to go like this, and why that feels better. But there’s just such insight and attunement and information processing. So if we get humble, and can tune in to what is working, just even put our mind towards what are we noticing that’s okay in the moment, rather than being pulled into what’s not okay, and then what might be not okay next. Then there’s more information, I think, kind of from our body, and it might be the information of “You know what, I think I need to drink something,” rather than panic about the fact that I’ve started coughing. “Actually, I think I want honey in it, whatever I drink. And for that matter my shoulders are tense, and oh, my gosh, I feel so much better.”
So the nonjudgmental curiosity, the tuning in with appreciation for what the scientists will also tell us, which is that there are tremendous mechanisms of self-regulation in the body, and there’s intelligence working at all kinds of deep subconscious levels, and that they can come into our awareness.
And the third is to allow ourselves to feel as young as we feel in a moment. So that’s a different kind of getting out of the way, I would say. When we’re infants, we don’t have language, and we don’t have the capacity to self-regulate. We learn to self-regulate by being co-regulated by others. So we have discomfort from swallowing air during a feeding, we don’t know what it is, but it is excruciating and terrifying, and we cry out, and if we have knowing, attentive caregivers they’ll be on to the possibility that, you know, there’s a bubble that needs to be burped. Or they won’t know what’s wrong, it could be teething, it could be that we’re cold, but they pick us up, and there’s full body contact, and we’re feeling their very calm heartbeat, because they’re not worried that we’re dying. We are, but they’re not. And there’s the soothing physical contact, and maybe a vocal vibration, or melody and rhythm, that restores our own. Eventually we really internalize that, and we note even among them a panic that soothing is possible, and sometimes just that knowledge on the body level can help us down-regulate.
We haven’t all had the idyllic or good enough childhood experience where we were soothed every time there was distress. And we might notice a feeling of distrust in ourselves, and something that feels very juvenile that we’re really wanting, or very infantile, even, like “I really want to hold something or someone,” or “I really feel like lying down and curling into a ball.” And if we can honor that, in our adult mind, even, and just, with curiosity, go towards what the body is saying – “This might feel good to me now. I’m going to hold a pillow, I’m going to hold a blanket, I’m going to put my hand where I imagine, you know, someone else’s hand being. I can’t feel my friend hugging me, but this is where I would feel it, and I actually do feel warmth in my own hand now.”
We can honor that, we can really address even levels of unmet need, where deep kind of insight into the body, that we might have lived a whole lifetime without addressing before, or tuning into that wisdom – and we can now live a whole lifetime with access to. “You know, sometimes this makes me feel better.”
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, that’s very helpful to be able to think through. And I think that, you know, one of the takeaways for me is also one line that I love, which is that “Even at this point, because every day feels exactly the same sometimes taking it day by day is too much, and taking it hour by hour, taking it minute by minute, or even second by second.” And so I really appreciate your sharing your wisdom and knowledge about how the body can can inform the way that our mind and our feelings interplay and how we can find that sense of regulation when we’re living in a time of tremendous disregulation, and even just being able to find those moments there. So thank you for the insights, and even more importantly, thank you for the incredible work that you’re doing. So thank you so much, and I hope everybody is staying, as I’ve been saying, “Safe and healthy and sane.”
Arielle Hanien: Thanks Geoff, you too.