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Rewire Your Nervous System: A Guide to Somatic Experiencing for Anxiety

Ever feel like your anxiety has a mind of its own? Like your nervous system is stuck in overdrive and there's nothing you can do about it? Good news - you can retrain your body and brain. Somatic experiencing is an approach to easing anxiety by tapping into your body's innate ability to regulate itself. You don't have to be at the mercy of your anxiety and stress responses. By learning simple skills, you can override them.




What Is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic experiencing is a form of therapy that helps treat anxiety and trauma by focusing on the body. Rather than talking through distressing experiences, a somatic experiencing practitioner teaches you skills to relieve and release the energy of unresolved trauma and anxiety held within your nervous system.


The idea is that when we experience an overwhelming event, our nervous system gets "stuck" in a state of fight, flight or freeze. Even though the threat has passed, your body is still responding as if it's happening now. Somatic experiencing uses gentle movements, mindfulness, and touch to help your nervous system return to a balanced state.


Some techniques include:

  • Slow, rhythmic breathing to induce a relaxed state. Deep, diaphragmatic breaths signal your nervous system to calm down.

  • Gentle yoga or Tai Chi. Slow, flowing movements release pent-up energy and tension in your body.

  • Body scanning. Systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in your body one by one. This helps you identify areas of tension to release.

  • Hands-on techniques. A practitioner may gently touch or apply pressure to areas of tension in your body. This touch stimulates your nervous system to relax.



How Somatic Experiencing Works to Reduce Anxiety

Somatic experiencing works by helping you regain control of your nervous system. When you're anxious, your body is in a state of hyperarousal - your heart races, breathing quickens, and muscles tense up.


This stress response was useful for our ancestors escaping predators, but today it often activates in situations where there's no real threat. Somatic experiencing helps you reset your nervous system through gentle movements and focused attention. By slowly and gently exposing yourself to anxiety-inducing sensations in a controlled setting, you can rewire your body's response.


Start with small movements

Begin with simple exercises like slowly clenching one fist, then releasing. Notice the sensations in your hand and arm. Repeat with the other hand. Work your way up to bigger movements like rotating your shoulders or gentle yoga stretches.


Focus your attention

Pay close attention to the physical sensations in your body. Notice areas of tension or discomfort, then imagine sending warmth and relaxation to those spots. Slow, deep belly breathing can help shift your body into a calmer state.


Find your triggers

Once you get familiar with the techniques, start introducing triggers for your anxiety like thinking about an upcoming stressful event. Notice how your body responds, then use the skills you've learned to relax into the discomfort. With regular practice, those triggers won't activate your stress response as strongly.



The Polyvagal Theory: Understanding Your Anxiety Response

The polyvagal theory explains how your nervous system responds to anxiety and stress.


There are three states:

  • Social engagement system: This is your normal, relaxed state. Your heart rate is steady, your digestion works well, and your body is calm.

  • Sympathetic nervous system: When stressed, your body activates the "fight or flight" response. Your heart races, breathing quickens, and muscles tense up. This response is designed to protect you from danger.

  • Dorsal vagal system: If fight or flight doesn't work, your body goes into freeze mode. Your heart rate and blood pressure drop, and you feel paralyzed. This is meant as a last defense to appear dead in the face of a threat.


For people with anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system is overly activated, even when there's no real threat. Somatic experiencing aims to help you shift out of fight or flight and back to your social engagement system. Some techniques for doing this include:

  • Deep, diaphragmatic breathing: Slow, deep breaths with a longer exhalation can help lower your heart rate and shift your body back to a calm state.

  • Gentle movement: Slowly moving your body, whether walking, stretching or light exercise, releases pent up energy and tension.

  • Self-massage: Applying pressure to tight areas of your body through massage or holding can relax your muscles. .

  • Mindfulness: Focusing your awareness on the present moment, your body and your breath can help shift you into the social engagement mode.


Techniques to Rewire Your Nervous System

Somatic experiencing techniques allow you to rewire your nervous system to better handle anxiety and stress. Here are a few ways to get started:


Focus on Your Breath

Take slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm to activate your body's relaxation response. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make your exhales longer than your inhales. This helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure, releasing feel-good hormones like serotonin that calm anxiety.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in your body one by one. Start with your feet and work your way up to your head. Tense each muscle group for 5-10 seconds and release. This helps you become aware of tension and melt it away, leaving your body feeling deeply relaxed.


Gentle Movement

Do some light exercise like walking, yoga, or Tai Chi. Movement releases endorphins that improve your mood and act as natural painkillers. It also burns off anxious energy and tension. Keep the intensity low and focus on the sensations in your body.


Visualization

Create peaceful imagery in your mind. Picture a calming, beautiful place in nature. Hear the sounds, feel the surroundings. This shifts your mind from anxiety to a meditative state. As you visualize, keep your breathing slow and steady.


The key is to start slowly and be gentle with yourself. Even just 10-15 minutes a day of these techniques can help retrain your nervous system to respond in a calmer way. Over time, you'll get better at noticing anxiety and applying these skills to find inner stillness.


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