Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Prosecutor Wellbeing Committee Chair
Anxiety is hard to describe, but we know it when we see it or, rather, feel it. Many resources on anxiety reduction lead us to somatic — or body-based — tools designed to pull our focus from the noise in our heads and back into our bodies where the real stress-metabolizing happens. Somatic tools are physical, body-based relaxation techniques which can be effective in moving out of hyper- or hypo-arousal. Somatic techniques are easy and include things like deep breathing, planting your feet on the ground, Qigong, Tai chi, yoga, walking, bouncing a ball, tapping, doing a puzzle, clapping, or listening to rhythmic music. The list is endless.
Somatic tools consist of actions or activities that pull us away from our triggering, ruminating or negative thoughts and into the present moment prior to freaking-out or going zombie. For those who like me appreciate acronyms, SNAP helps us remember the steps to re-route our neuropathways: Stress — Notice — Adjust — get Present (SNAP). Imagine hiking along your favorite trail and coming upon a tree that has blown over and blocked the path. That’s the S-stress part. Next, you N-notice, hopefully, or your shins are going to hurt really bad. A-adjust by — and here you have many options — hopping over, going around, belly-crawling under, dragging it out of the way, grabbing your saw and cutting through the thing — you get it. Finally, you get present again, on the other side of the stressful event, with little ado.
Here’s a real-life example that is less metaphor.
S-stress: I see a comment on social media posted by a troll that tells me I should kill myself. N-notice: I feel a punch in my gut and my chest sinks inward, slightly slouching, to instinctively protect my heart with my posture. I recognize that this is a trigger that evokes intense feelings of shame stemming from a decade-old event that felt really unfair. Instead of reaching for chocolate or wine (the old way), I A-adjust my posture and put my shoulders back, take a deep breath, and remind myself that this person’s opinion is about as significant as a dog fart: invisible, very unpleasant but harmless and short in duration (ok, more metaphor. I can’t help it). One more big breath and right back to. . . wait for it. . . the P-present.
The trickiest part of SNAP is the AP. Stress will show up on its own without you having to do much conjuring. Noticing just takes practice. The act of returning to your body after trauma or stress triggers are activated requires awareness, shifting and then dropping into the window of tolerance [WOT]. The Adjustments to get Present come in every shape and size. The following exercise can help you start your own collection of somatic go-tos.
Tool: SNAP out of it
SNAP helps us remember the steps to get out of our heads and back into optimal functioning.
Let’s engage in some preventative wellbeing. Close your eyes and think of a situation that is a source of recurring frustration. A certain judge. A neighbor’s dog. An ex. Doesn’t matter. Wallow in the experience for a minute, focusing on details. We are going to map out a route to reduce the stress impact by using the SNAP tool.
Got it? Jot down the following:
Stress. Write a sentence describing this probable irritating event.
Notice. Write down any physical sensations you have while either experiencing this event or thinking about it (squinting, tightening of the chest, gut punch, head pressure, etc.).
Adjust. Now, adjust your body to allow some relief from this sensation (exhale, sit back, correct posture, relax your face, fold your hands, etc.). As you do this, picture a line or separation between your feelings and your thoughts. What adjustment did you try?
Get Present. After the adjustment, bring your attention back to the present. If you decide to act, act from the thought side of the line. If you decide not to act, take a breath, and let the event dissolve. What did you notice?
Tool: Somatic Menu
When we are at Hyper or Hypo, somatic, body-based, & sensory tools can help bring us back into the optimal zone. These tools help “get us out of our heads” and often take only moments to do and can eventually widen our optimal zone through awareness and embodiment. Here is an incomplete list of useful tools:
-Adjust your posture
-Open your rib cage and breath
-Place a hand on your heart
-Walk around the block
-Smell a flower
-Say a mantra
-Go for a run
-Entrain with someone who is calm
-Bounce a ball
-Review your Why Worksheet
-Take a hike
-Take the stairs
-Sing out loud
-Do a puzzle
-Pet a dog
-Watch a fire or candle burn
-Groove to some music
-Wiggle you toes
-Walk a labyrinth
What somatic tools work for you? Put together a personal “grounding menu”
Which of these new tools would you be willing to try?
Which fall right into your “I will never do that” column?
Kirsten Pabst is the elected prosecutor in Missoula County, Montana, chairs NDAA’s Prosecutor Wellbeing Committee, and is the author of Thriving Through Chaos — Survival Gear for Criminal Justice Professionals. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.