We are living in a society that tremendously undervalues rest.
I suspect this is a major reason why the National Institutes of Health and the National Geographic Channel combined forces to produce “Sleepless in America”, a documentary I recommend to nearly every one of my clients. This documentary details the profound consequences of sleep deprivation, and can be seen online here, at no charge.
Rest is a biological imperative, and athletes, coaches and personal trainers understand this. When we engage in physical exercise, our muscles are actually torn up. The muscle fibers suffer tears. It is during the resting period that our bodies rebuild them–stronger than they had been before. This is a form of stress adaptation, and it is entirely dependent on that resting period. The body is working during that resting time, making things better. Even professional and/or fanatic athletes alternate days; they don’t work the same muscle two or more days in a row. Ignoring the rest period leads to a condition known as “overtraining”, in which further work actually causes regression.
Think about that. You work harder, and things get worse. You feel worse; your performance gets worse; your measurable output gets worse. (In athletes, their resting heart rate rises, appetite plummets, and they may feel ill. They also tend to lose muscle tone.)
In this circumstance, many of us have been taught to soldier on, push harder. Obviously, the exact opposite approach is needed. Even those who sadly don’t inherently value themselves enough to adopt this more humane approach, can’t argue with the “bottom line” of better performance.
Somatic therapy is like that. We often want to charge right into the heart of our issues, in a heartfelt but ultimately misguided attempt to “solve” them. Sometimes the more we think think think about them, the worse things get in our heads!
It’s in the stepping away, the resting, that the progress comes. In session, we work on the issue a little bit, for seconds or minutes, and then we step away, move our attention to something else. We might do several “waves” of this during a session; and then the client goes home and rests, engages in something else. I have seen, and experienced first-hand, that the opposite approach, overworking an issue, leads to regression.
The period of resting between cycles of work is called integration. Many of my clients leave my office physically tired and/or hungry. I should rent the office across the hall from me, and set up couches and a snack bar.
This fatigue/ hunger is a good thing. Their bodies are demanding rest and replenishment after the “workout”. I lean on my clients to go with it. Not get stressed, not force themselves into more hard work, right after going into their own personal caves to do battle with their personal dragons.
Most little kids don’t have an issue with this. They’re tuned into their bodies’ natural rhythms. They burst with exuberance when they’re energized, and they crash asleep when tired. Sometimes they need a little encouragement from their parents to sleep–they’re cranky and crabby; but life is new and wonderous and they don’t want to miss anything while they’re sleeping!
Over time, however, we learn to over-ride our bodies’ rhythms, to push ourselves. We ignore the subtle signals that our bodies need a break. Or we feel them, but feel guilty about them. Or we push ourselves to the point of collapse, into an unproductive, unmotivated and numbed-out state which is different from true rest.
One of the very most important things I’ve learned from Dr. Peter Levine, and Somatic Experiencing, is the wisdom and grace of dancing with one’s issues. Peter devised an elegant approach, which he calls “pendulation”: the moving in and out of the traumatic material. We practitioners support and guide the system towards pendulation until it does it on its own: With a momentary swell of emotion, the body deactivates its stress response, and balance and peace are restored.
Working in this attuned, nuanced way also requires us to develop an ability to tolerate whatever “the issue” is that we’re dancing with. To move in and out of it, we have to accept that it’s there, however temporarily. We also have to learn to trust that our body knows what to do with it. We can’t will (or think) our nervous system to be “done” with an issue. We have to hold space for it and basically take a leap of faith that the deactivation of the trigger will come with time.
Crucial to this healing process is rest. We have to breathe, get ourselves out of the singular, locked focus that characterizes the threat response. We have to look around, see what else is going on around us, in the world outside. But above all, rest.