Despite the attitudes of mainstream culture around rest, how we rest is not the same, nor are our personal barriers to rest. Many of us are grappling with the effects of trauma in our lives, in our communities, from our lineages, and on the very land that we reside. Living with unprocessed trauma often imprints a sense of urgency on our nervous systems and can greatly affect our ability to rest in the present. In the past decade, research has proven that the biological and emotional effects of trauma can be transmitted through generations.
This groundbreaking research is beginning to shift the way we treat and understand our individual traumas, the traumas of those who came before us, and our collective trauma. This work is widening the view of how we look through the lens of historical trauma, the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding” across generations.
It is impossible to explore our individual sense of urgency and the pace of our lives without addressing the effects of our personal and collective trauma. According to research, more than 70 percent of people in the United States have had a traumatic experience in their life. And this research doesn’t include systemic, racial, complex, and collective trauma that affects millions of Americans daily. We often think of trauma as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or as war or massive global disasters. However, the global COVID-19 pandemic, the imminent climate crisis, and various divisions in our world have created a traumatized society. It is also now becoming well accepted that we are three times more likely to experience one or multiple symptoms of PTSD, ranging from anxiety to insomnia, if a parent has suffered from PTSD. Trauma manifests in our bodies, brains, beliefs, and behaviors, and science shows that we did not have to personally experience a particular trauma for it to shock our hearts or imprint on our nervous systems.
More than 70 percent of people in the United States have had a traumatic experience in their life.
Trauma can be experienced in many places, including home life, school, work, in the wider community, or in a war zone. “Trauma” is not defined by the event itself but by how each person or community experiences or experienced it.
Peter Levine, PhD, founder of the Somatic Experiencing Institute, shares that “trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Those of us who experience similar traumas aren’t necessarily going to exhibit the same symptoms. While there are a wide range of trauma manifestations, a sense of urgency, hypervigilance, anxiety, fear, disassociation, and physical pain are some of the most common that make it extremely challenging to downshift and rest.
For those of us who have experienced trauma or are continuing to navigate trauma in everyday life, slowing down and engaging with rest can feel very uncomfortable and at times terrifying. It’s important that we learn to titrate our practice, meaning we practice brief moments of resting, like the One-Minute Rest practice I describe in my book, to build our capacity for longer stretches of rest. As our capacity grows, we can practice for longer periods.
Titration is also a way to integrate trauma into the nervous system. It is a very effective technique that I’ve incorporated into my teaching practice and found that it can have a great impact on learning to rest, especially for those of us who identify with having trauma. Titration allows us to meet rest in a gradual process, giving us the space to come to terms with and integrate each moment of rest as we feel ready to do so. Part of what can happen with trauma is that our nervous systems cannot tolerate a slower pace; it’s too overwhelming and can send our systems into our survival physiology, either fight-or-flight (sympathetic) or freeze-shutdown-fawn (dorsal vagal). Working with titration in our rest practices can give us the somatic skills to be with the discomfort that arises as we touch into the places in our nervous systems that haven’t felt safe enough to rest.
For those of us who have experienced trauma. . .slowing down and engaging with rest can feel very uncomfortable and at times terrifying.
In practical terms, using titration in a rest practice looks like noticing when the sensations in our bodies become too much for our systems to tolerate, thus increasing our sympathetic physiology. In those moments we shift gears and anchor into Orienting (see below) and slow things down even more. Once we’ve settled ourselves, we can then return to our rest practice. Alternatively, if our dominant nervous system coping strategy is to go numb or check out, which can be easy to do when starting a seated or lying down rest practice, I recommend rest practices that are more active, like Nature Bathing Tending to a Plant, or Pruning, all of which I describe in my book.
As mentioned earlier, Orienting is a practice of taking in the world around you through your senses. You can practice this anywhere, outside or inside, and it is an effective way to bring your system back into resilience, whether you’re stressed, overwhelmed, or feeling low. Here are some examples of Orienting: feeling the warmth of the sun on your cheeks, relishing at the awe of a full moon, noting a favorite photo on your mantle, smelling afresh flower blossom, touching the fabric of your clothing, and listening to the sound of a bird calling or the wind rushing through tree branches.
Living with the effects of trauma or being stuck in our survival physiology causes us to lose touch with our organic ability to connect with our environment in a way that helps us access the safety of our ventral vagal system and rest. By taking the time to consciously practice Orienting in small moments throughout our days and within our rest practices, we give our systems the opportunity to build internal skills to experience rest.
Orienting can feel uncomfortable if you have stored survival stress in your system or lineage. When you begin the practice of Orienting, your system might feel a sense of fear or an impulse to flee. Alternatively, your system might feel the need to distract yourself from boredom. Both reactions are welcome; neither is bad or wrong. These reactions tell the stories of what your body had to do to keep you safe as a result of trauma or emotional distress. As much as you can, try to practice kindness toward the ways your body has kept you safe. At the same time, learn to work gently with the responses in your system so that you can heal and rest. When we begin the journey of resting, our stored survival energies flow to the surface to be released. Orienting can help you titrate your practice, incorporating micro doses of rest at a time, building your system’s capacity to be present and embodied.
I suggest beginning each rest session with Orienting (see below). I also recommend it when your system feels anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, or checked out. Orienting can be supportive when you encounter sadness or grief as well. Orienting is a practice that teaches our nervous system that it can experience stress and then find its way back to a state of rest. When you experience feeling anxious during a rest practice, for example, you can orient by bringing your awareness to what you see in your line of vision or what you hear in your space. Like titration, over time, the practice of Orienting can help grow the capacity of your nervous system to be able to access the rhythm of rest more freely, with more ease, and for longer stretches of time.
When you notice you are experiencing intense sensations, thoughts, or emotions, use your five senses to bring yourself into your body in the present moment. You can do this simple Orienting practice in any moment when you want to pause, feel grounded, integrate your experience, or reconnect to your desire to move at a slower pace.
- Name five things you can see.
- Name four things you can hear.
- Name three things you can touch within your immediate reach.
- Name two things you can smell.
- Name one thing you can taste.