Shake it out (how shaking, sweating and dancing can help you to heal)
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Last summer, Merel and I casually ate a weed cookie. This wasn't a heavy duty weed cookie by any means. It was pretty mild and the friend who had given us the cookie said that when she ate one from the same batch she played some fun board games and 'had some giggles'. This was not my experience of the cookie I consumed.
After we ate it, we were sitting on the couch watching 'Girls', (as one does when you have a body high) and I suddenly began to 'zone out' and move into spontaneous shaking with my body that lasted, off an on, approximately five hours in length. My pulse was well over 150bpm and my body was in a complete state of fight/flight. Merel had to move me down to the floor and hold me on a yoga mat while my body shook and released. Had this experience only happened the once I would have said that it was definitely some type of adverse reaction to the god damn cookie. The thing is, it didn't happen just once, it happened four more times, spontaneously during the night for the same amount of time. I couldn't control it, I couldn't stop it and I didn't know when it was going to happen again. Thank God I was living with Merel and that she is such a compassionate and loving friend, as it was truly a terrifying experience and I needed her support. Of course, we were all greatly concerned about what was going on with my body. So I reached out to my family doctor and did all of the tests. I even wore a holter monitor over the span of 72 hours so that he could check my heart health. Everything came back 'normal'. This shouldn't be surprising to me. As someone who has been living with chronic, invisible illness for close to two decades I am used to hearing the words 'everything's normal', even when I know very clearly that it isn't. The closest thing that my friends, family and I could come up with as an explanation is that I had an adverse reaction/overdose to a thyroid hormone that I was taking and it put my body into a state of 'hyperthyroidism' for an extended period of time. While I think that's probably at least part of it, I also believe now that there was something more at play.
I don't have children. I don't know what it feels like to give birth - but I couldn't help but wonder if it mirrored what I experienced those five times my body went into spontaneous shaking/convulsions. At certain points Merel would be holding and coaching me, much like I envision a doula would do with a woman in labour. The energetic and emotional waves pulsed through my body, mirroring contractions that afterwards brought a sense of release, relief and insight. It was truly one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever had in my life. I was conscious during the episodes, but zoned out. I was aware of what was happening, but it was a feeling that I couldn't control my body or the processes it was experiencing. The last time it happened, we decided to call my mother over to supervise me, as she is a retired nurse of 40 years and we felt it was important for her to view my state in real time so that I she could help me better report to my doctor what was happening. My mom, completely at a loss and quite upset when she saw the state of me, continued to say 'this is not psychological, this is physiological'. She sat with me that night from 2am-5am saying reassuringly 'It's ok - it's just been a while since I've worked a night shift'.
I am still processing the fear and uncertainty of these episodes - what they were, how they happened, what was going on with my body. To be honest, the experiences felt so insane and unlikely that if I had been alone and Merel and my mom hadn’t been there to witness them I might have a hard time trusting that they had actually happened. When all of my medical tests were complete and came back 'normal', I asked my doctor out of desperation 'well then, what WAS that?' He replied graciously and humbly, 'this is just one of the examples of the limitations of western medicine. We simply don't know'.
Almost a year has passed since the onset of those episodes and, with lots of time for reflection, research, processing and understanding, I believe that what happened to my body was a miraculous act of spontaneous healing and release, triggered and induced perhaps by the weed cookie or the thyroid hormone overdose, or both. But a spontaneous act of healing and somatic stress release nonetheless.
I shared my experiences with my therapist - an incredibly wise man with a background in somatic psychotherapy. He has studied the healing modalities of many different Indigenous populations (including our own) and has a perspective on mind/body connection that I have never experienced before with any other psychotherapist that I've ever worked with. His reaction was curious but not entirely shocked or surprised. I first went to him six years ago with obvious symptoms of post traumatic stress, though it went unrecognized by any other health professional I had seen prior. 'You needed somebody trauma informed', he said to me years later, once I was aware enough to understand that what I was experiencing was connected to trauma and the nervous system. The problem was that no one else that I had seen was trauma informed, and my symptoms were written off as individual phenomena, neatly placed into diagnostic boxes that separated each part of my body from all of the others. My therapist's recommendation for the episodes: allow them to happen. Don't judge them. Don't try to stop them. So long as I had done medical testing and knew that it was nothing hugely threatening to my overall health, I should let my body do its thing.
Dr. Peter Levine is a psychologist, researcher, and former stress consultant with NASA who specializes in working with trauma and stress-related disorders. He is the developer of Somatic Experiencing, a body-oriented approach to treating trauma which focuses on processing traumatic memory, calming the nervous system, and releasing traumatic shock from the body. The approach was inspired by his observation of trauma recovery behaviours in nature. By observing mammals in their natural habitat, he observed that upon stressful encounters with other animals, they would often go into a state of 'freeze' out of safety and life preservation. Once the threat dissipated or disappeared, the animals would shake, shiver, quiver, and release the traumatic stress that had been circulating in their nervous systems due to the attack. This wasn't something that happened every so often - it was a regular, repeated occurrence amongst mammals in the wild. Dr. Levine began to experiment with these practices with his own client base and observed that individuals who had experienced life threatening events long ago had the capacity to release the stress stored as a result of these events through shaking, shivering and spontaneous movement. They were able to process what had originally happened to them that had induced their bodies into a 'freeze' state where they had remained for years and sometimes even decades. Adult clients that he was supervising began releasing stress from events that they had experienced in childhood that they had not been able to remember through cognition and had not been able to process using traditional talk therapy. The hugest requirement for their bodies to be able to access these release states were extreme safety in relationship. It was as if their bodies knew exactly what to do. They just had to be given the right support.
Upon further study of this process, Dr. Levine discovered that it was not only 'Big T' traumas that could be resolved, but also, though slightly more challenging, pervasive ’little t’ traumas that were stored in the nervous system from long term, ongoing stressors in a person's life. He also discovered that it was not necessary for the individual to remember specifically what they had experienced in order for their bodies to release the contained stress from their nervous system, but that it simply required attention to body sensations in a safe and supportive environment.
Its difficult to describe what it feels like to be living in a functional freeze state. The best depiction is to say that it is like having the gas pedal and the brakes on at the same time. Numb and paralyzed on the outside but with active fight/flight energy happening inside.
You are dissociated on the day to day, but with unprocessed energy inside of you ready to be easily activated by any event that reminds it of the past. You could easily say that it's likely that a large percentage of the population is living in this state, (myself included) - never learning how to process our emotions around events that happen to us, and not understanding that what we refer to as 'trauma' is not only reserved for combat veterans, first responders or natural disaster survivors. Trauma is, in essence, any event or experience that overwhelms the nervous system that we don't have the safety or support to process at the time - from the seemingly 'small' and 'meaningless' to the more obviously life altering. Our systems contain the experiences of our lives (so long as we don't process or move through them), which link heavily to our self created belief systems about ourselves and the world around us. Trauma is any type of unprocessed stress that remains, unresolved in our nervous systems. It is subjective, different for everybody, less about the type and extent of event that causes it, and more about how it impacts us internally, as individuals. As Gabor Mate so eloquently puts it 'trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens inside us as a result of what happens'. And what happens inside us lives on and waits for daily experiences that remind our nervous systems of the past, when it is once again activated, leaving us to feel (consciously or not) like we are reliving the original experience.
Without my initial understanding, this type of trapped stress processing is exactly what my therapist had been working towards with me over the past six years. Guiding me to feel into my body sensations by locating them in my body, and teaching me how to release them and to move this energy through. The process has been painfully slow, as, in order to survive the ongoing, unrelenting nervous system activation that I have been living with for so long, I have had to disconnect from my body in general. It has taken time for me to reconnect with it and it has required a great degree of safety to get there. It has been the secure attachment/relationship with my therapist that has allowed for this to unfold and it has taken years for my system to develop the necessary degree of trust and safety with him.
There are various ways to facilitate the movement of this stored stress response. The best ways that I've learned are through the following:
4) yelling (or making any sound)
6) active breath work
All of these methods, though simple in nature, are easier said than done. We live in a culture that trains us to suppress our emotions OR to take them out on other people. Rarely are we taught how to take responsibility for our feelings and we are almost never taught what to do with them when they arise. We are taught that vulnerability and emotional expression is a sign of weakness. Meanwhile, our brilliant bodies know exactly what they are doing, but we rarely let them do it.
Back to my weed cookie experience - it is my belief now that what occurred was that my body saw an opening. The onset of COVID was obviously monumentally stressful and my nervous system was already far too full. Whatever the trigger (the cookie or the thyroid hormone) I believe now that my body saw an opportunity to release some of what was stored inside of it, because it had to. There was simply no room left to experience and survive COVID and everything else that comes along with that. My body did me a favour, albeit a terrifying one, and took me into a state of spontaneous nervous system stress release. After each of these episodes, I would become incredibly, ravenously hungry. My appetite kicking back on to signal that I was ready to receive nutrients again. Fascinating. I had experienced a similar thing only once before in my life, the first time I attended a Sweat Lodge Ceremony in Kenora. After the first round, my body moved into spontaneous stress release through uncontrollable crying, shaking and trembling. Not surprisingly, the elders there knew exactly what this was and how to guide me through the process, their ancient practices holding a deep wisdom that moves beyond what we have been able to 'prove' with modern science. Afterwards, I ate like an animal.
There are other ways that I have been working on continuing this process during my every day life, one of which being to recognize and engage in my body's natural, healthy aggression. This involves a large amount of reprogramming because part of my survival has been to always try to 'keep the peace' no matter what. Relational conflict feels life threatening for me. I have a very difficult time relaxing into someone else being displeased with or heaven forbid angry at me. In order to begin to process the stress that I have suppressed for so long I have had to begin to do things like set boundaries, communicate preferences, express anger, set limits with my time and energy, say no, express my needs and basically any/all of the things that were societally trained out of me as a human and especially as a woman.
Societally, men are not supposed to be sad or afraid. Women are not supposed to be angry. How often do we hear anger or assertiveness in women associated with ‘craziness’, ‘hysteria’ or being 'out of control' - societal conditioning at its best trying keep us small, controlled and to suffocate our healthy aggression, our power, our life force.
Due to this fucked up programming, things like setting boundaries still feel paralyzingly terrifying to me and continue to require constant practice. Merel, having travelled this path for longer than I, demonstrates these practices in our friendship. When, through my conditioning, I try to unconsciously prevent her from feeling anger in our home she gently responds with a loving but firm 'fuck that' and tells me to mind my emotional business. They're her emotions, after all, not mine, and she is entitled to have them. If I don't like it, well then, that's just too bad. She teaches me what the healthy expression, ownership and responsibility over anger looks like, as it’s something I’ve not seen before. This emotion frightens me, never having learned how to express it in a healthy way, myself. Her refusal to tone herself down to make me more comfortable demonstrates to me my own conditioning and shows me that it is not only perfectly acceptable to have and express emotion, but it is necessary for authentic connection. I am also learning an appreciation for spontaneous movement and for doing things like dancing in my kitchen - blasting the music and allowing my body to pulse and move naturally, in the ways that it craves. It's a slow progression to allowing this motion, as I've spent most of my life trapped in a contained and contracted state. It's flow, it's expression, it's intuition, it's spontaneity. Engaging in these practices feels strange - like learning a new, foreign language. Which is why I’m grateful for the teacher in that cookie. However scary the experience was, it gave me the opportunity to get out of my own body’s way. It demonstrated to me how much my body contains that requires acknowledgement, release and expression. It exemplified my body’s brilliance at knowing exactly what to do, despite all of my efforts to shut it up, contain it and keep it quiet. Thank you, body. Thank you, cookie. Thank you Peter Levine and other pioneers in the field who are beginning to bring these wise practices that we can use to facilitate our body’s natural healing capacities into the mainstream. And thank you to our brilliantly wise Indigenous peoples, who have been the keepers, holders and true teachers of this sacred knowledge for centuries. Thank you crying, thank you shaking, thank you dancing, sweating, yelling, singing, writing, speaking, laughing, sharing, running, MOVING. Thank you for all of the ways that we can express and release what is inside of us, as we need to, now, more than ever. Our world needs it.
Reilly Scott is a singer/songwriter, blogger, yoga teacher and facilitator residing in Kenora, Ontario. She is passionate about combining trauma informed practice and body based healing modalities with the arts to support psycho-education, health and wellbeing.
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