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Using Somatic Practices to Support Nervous System Regulation

Somatic exercises can be highly effective tools for regulating your nervous system during times of high distress, anxiety, or panic.

Amber Sebastian, MFT-IT at Clear Path Counseling and Wellness, LLC

January 29, 2024

These techniques focus on the mind-body connection and can help an individual return to a state of calm. These practices can help calm the sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight" response) and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest and digest" response).

Here is a list of somatic exercises that you can use:

Breath Work

  • Deep Breathing: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing (also known as belly breathing) is one of the simplest and most effective ways to regulate the nervous system. Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise as you fill your lungs, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Focus on making your exhale longer than your inhale, as this extended exhalation is what activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which will calm you down. You can also practice a 4-7-8 breathing technique (inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7, exhale for 8) to further calm your nervous system.

  • Box Breathing: this technique involves inhaling for a count of 4, holding for a count of 4, then exhaling for a count of 4, repeating several times until you have returned to a state of calm. Watch this Square Breathing Visual video for a guided process produced by the University of Alabama here: 

  • Breath Awareness: Simply paying attention to your breath without trying to change it can be a powerful somatic tool. Observe the natural rhythm of your breath, noticing the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation of air passing through your nostrils.

  • Breath Counting: A simple but effective practice is to count your breaths. Inhale, then exhale and silently count "one." Continue counting each exhalation up to a count of ten, then start over. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath and the counting.

Body Scan Meditation: A body scan involves mentally scanning your body from head to toe, paying attention to any areas of tension or discomfort. You start at one end of your body (e.g., your toes) and gradually move your attention through each body part, noticing any tension or discomfort. As you become aware of these sensations, you can breathe into them and consciously release tension. This practice promotes relaxation and body awareness.

Grounding: Grounding techniques involve connecting with the physical sensations of your body and the environment around you, which can reduce feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, disorientation, or panic. Here are some examples of grounding techniques: 

  • 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise: Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

  • Sensory Awareness: shift your focus away from distressing thoughts by placing attention on your present moment sensory experiences, like feeling the texture of an object, listening to sounds in your environment, or savoring the taste and smell of a comforting food or beverage.

  • Mindful Walking: pay close attention to the sensation of your feet firmly on the ground and tune into the subtle sensations in each step

  • Grounding Objects: Holding or touching comforting objects like a smooth stone, a soft fabric, or a stress ball can provide sensory feedback and help you stay present

Guided Imagery: Guided imagery exercises involve visualizing calming and soothing scenes or sensations. For example, imagine yourself in a peaceful natural setting and focus on the sensory details. A therapist or guided meditation recording can lead you through this process, helping you create a sense of safety and relaxation.

Humming or Chanting: Making humming or chanting sounds can stimulate the vagus nerve, which is associated with relaxation and calming the nervous system.

Mindful Movement: Engaging in gentle somatic movement practices like yoga, tai chi, or Qigong can be highly effective for regulating the nervous system by promoting relaxation and reducing muscle tension. Additional practices include walking mindfully, stretching, or gently swaying from side to side. The key is to maintain awareness of the physical sensations as you move.

Physical Activity: Engaging in physical activities like jogging, dancing, or swimming can help release built-up tension and promote the release of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): PMR involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in the body. Start with your toes and work your way up to your head, tensing each muscle group for a few seconds and then releasing. Pay attention to the sensations of tension and release. This exercise promotes relaxation and can help relieve physical tension, stress, and anxiety.

Self-Massage: Gently massaging tense areas of your body, such as your neck, shoulders, or temples, can release physical tension and promote relaxation. You can use your hands or tools like foam rollers or massage balls.

Tapping or EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques): EFT involves tapping on specific acupressure points while focusing on a specific issue or emotion. This practice can help reduce emotional distress and regulate the nervous system.

Visual Imagery: Close your eyes and visualize a peaceful place, such as a beach or a forest. Imagine yourself there and focus on the sensory details—what you see, hear, smell, and feel. This mental imagery can help calm your nervous system.

Keep in mind that different somatic tools may work better for different individuals. Experiment with a variety of somatic practices to find out which ones work best for you in regulating your nervous system during moments of distress, anxiety, or panic. It's often helpful to practice these techniques regularly, even when you're not in a state of distress, so that they become more effective when you need them most.  Additionally, consider seeking guidance from a trained therapist or counselor who can tailor somatic techniques to your specific needs and provide support as you learn how to effectively regulate your nervous system.

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