Here’s an a little Public Service Announcement (PSA) video I made about SE and the importance of allowing involuntary behavior.
It’s followed by some commentary on this cute but overly simplified explanation of why animals shake in order to feel better from stress.
Sure, Lucky is cute and on a certain level the message here is entirely accurate: shaking, particularly involuntary shaking, is a key to relieving pent up stress. But like every other Public Service Announcement it’s oversimplified. [Do you remember, “This is your brains, this is drugs, this is your brain on drugs?” Often brevity = simplicity.]
As SEP’s (and hopefully the general public) we should keep a few things in mind…
1. There’s definitely a change, a before and after.
- Before his body does the “shaking it off” bit, Lucky is a bundle of nerves. Trembling seemingly without end.
- Both the shaking and the trembling are involuntary but one is “productive” while the other is “reiterative.” The trembling just keeps repeating itself without much change.
- The change comes when he’s able to MOVE his body, that is, once he’s actually able to execute some of the instructions and energy that are building up in him while he’s anticipating and fearing the walk. [Yes, I’m certain he’s afraid – no matter how many times he does this he still gets freaked out each time he’s taken out.**]
It’s the action that facilitates his change of state and creates the opportunity for him to “discharge.” Without it he’s likely to continue trembling until he gets exhausted, in which case the trembling slows down but so does he, all the way to freeze/immobility. If he gets triggered like this and gets away he’ll hide for hours. The prospect for soothing him while he’s trembling like this is limited to only 1 or 2 people that he attached to early on. Everyone else can “coo” and pet him until the sun goes down, it won’t matter, he doesn’t relax. But let him take off running at the beginning of his walks and 5 seconds later he’ll “shake it off” once or twice and be fine.
Many people experience similar expressions to Lucky everyday. Something “triggers” us, we get feeling off inside, we might even vibrate or tremble involuntarily. And just like Lucky, a lot of times when this happens we can’t seem to move on our own, we just exist there frozen and stuck waiting for something else to happen. For some of us, this can go on for hours. And yes, just like Lucky, something else is trying to happen or wants to happen or would happen if something was different.
The thing that’s different for Lucky is when the door of the elevator (and then the gate) open and he’s able to take off running. What’s different for people with this kind of reiterating pent up stress response varies but it’s almost always asking for some movement to happen. As SE practitioners we know this, through and through. We know that the motor system is the key to supporting the transition out of the stress response. One thing we can remember though is that not all movement is productive movement and not all productive movement is involuntary – we need both.
If a tremble is happening during an SE session, great, you’ve probably got enough energy present for something else to happen, probably something valuable for that person. But just sitting with it and waiting for “the wisdom of the body to do what it wants to do” may not be enough. It can in fact simply get stuck and reiterate.
Reiteration of something like trembling can happen for several reasons:
- There’s still too much overlay of incomplete freeze response on that element or adjacent elements of the motor system. [Meaning: it’s coming out of freeze and that bit of trembling is what you’re going to get, good, feel free to call it a success and leave it at that for now.]
- The client is consciously or unconsciously inhibiting the process from moving forward due to unfamiliarity or fear of involuntary process. [Meaning: you may have to help them get more comfortable with involuntary process and you may need to do that at a smaller titration.]
- Insufficient free attention and ability to notice changes (i.e. differences) so what they do notice is that the trembling is still happening which in turn reinforces the trembling. [Meaning: they may need help noticing what else is happening or what wants to happen next.]
- Surely there’s more. [Meaning: really, there’s surely more. It’s probably best to always keep in mind that critical category Too-Soon-To-Tell. That way we can keep our curiosity about what’s going on and can continue to look for more information that might help things move forward.]
The SEP can also be responsible for this trembling status quo by:
- Thinking this is “discharge” and encouraging it to happen or to “stay with it”, which is heard as “keep it like that.”
- Poor facilitation of curiosity to see what happens next, which may include a need to notice what else is happening alongside the trembling.
- Insufficiently priming or preparing the system to do what wants to come next.
- And again, surely there’s more….
In all it’s good to be looking for movement, any movement, even trembling, but we want to see that kind of thing actually move toward an action. That doesn’t mean the action is going to happen the first time around, sometimes this happens in stages – a little bit at a time. Most importantly though, we don’t want to be responsible for making it stick around by making it more important than it is. We want to support involuntary movement but we want that to be productive involuntary movement!
Thanks for the reminder Lucky.
– Post Script: I should probably come back to this since there’s a lot more here. Like how you can’t just “shake it off” if you’ve been holding it in for a long time. It’ll have to be titrated to be success and not overwhelming. I’ll save that for another post.
** Since he’s been well cared for his entire life I’m, mostly, give this up to his genetic constitution. He’s about as far away from his resilient lupus (wolf) ancestry as domestication can get.
Some intervention and languaging options:
1) Keep in mind that this trembling may be the most you can get for free movement expression in this session. If that’s the case there’s no need to push it as that won’t help anything. If the trembling is new and spontaneous but becomes reiterative you’ve already achieved a change, leave it at that and see what happens next time.
2) If it’s not new but “happens all the time” you’re looking for something else to pay attention to or to see what hasn’t happened with it yet.
- “Can you feel that as if it’s for the first time and see what you notice this time?”
- “The same as last time huh? As you notice it this time what do you notice underneath it” or “As you notice it this time what else do you notice?
3) Priming is often easier in the image channel so you can try to move the attention there and see what happens – completion and phase transition can even happen in imagine.
- “As you’re feeling the trembling can you see an image of what your XYZ would like to do?” [Then prime or actually follow to completion the movement sequence in image. Just be sure to facilitate the image being involuntary as much as possible.]
4) Sometimes you actually need to prescribe an action, something to do with the energy so it doesn’t just spin around on itself. This has caveats:
- As noted, you’re looking to support involuntary action so any prescription on voluntary action needs to be done with caution or you work against your ultimate purpose.
- The more the client can decide on what action to do the better, since this is more empowering.
- Sometimes these movements need to be very small and seemingly non-consequential so as to be successful. “Maybe I’ll ask if you can just open and close your hand gently a few times…?” [That was softened, invitational, titrated and mitigated to make the prescription as least directive as possible. Maybe = softening, ask = invitational, gently = titrated, mitigated = a few times.]
- Other times you can have them just jump up and down so as to do something with that energy if it’s really not going anywhere. [Obviously you don’t do this with someone for whom that would be outside of their range of capacity.]