Body College Tools for Anxiety, Pain and Trauma Tue, 22 Dec 2020 10:47:25 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 Body College 32 32 How to recognise fight, flight or freeze Tue, 22 Dec 2020 10:47:25 +0000 The understanding of trauma is fundamental to health. 

We’re all hardwired to respond to overwhelming experiences in the same way. We contract away from danger, we run, jump fight or shutdown.

The control mechanisms (nervous, hormonal and immune) take us immediately into states of being mobilised (‘fight-or-flight’) or immobilised (‘freeze’).

The good news is that we evolved to respond quickly to trauma and have the innate ability to process and overcome trauma. We would not have survived as a species if this were not the case.

Connecting to the body is essential to support safe, contained processing of traumatic experiences.

Some simple questions can help you identify that your body might be working harder than you realise to try and protect you:

One: Do I get cold hands or feet? This is a common sign of a’fight-or-flight’ being turned on; we divert blood away from the periphery towards the big muscles when activated.

Two: Am I sensitive to bright lights or loud noises? This is another sign of ‘fight-or-flight’, the pupils get bigger and the ears more sensitive in the stress response.

Three: Do I bump into things? Or am I clumsy? We lose spatial awareness when dissociated and in the ‘freeze’ aspect of the stress response.

Four: Do I have a sense of being detached, dreamy, or having my head in the clouds? Feeling detached and dreamy can be a form of dissociation. Dissociation is part of the body’s response to overwhelming stress.

If you notice these things happening to you, it’s good to practice finding places of health in your body. We have lots of health within us. Try to find things that make you feel good in your body, thoughts or ideas that make you feel more alive, people, food, places can also make this connection to health. These are health resources. Sit for a while and think about what objects make this connection for you in your life.

Over time, as you practice, you will build up a library of things that help you feel safe. Some core, reliable sensations will emerge that you can remember and be with even in the darkest of times.

In my book, ‘Trauma Is Really Strange’ I explore what trauma is, how it changes the way our brains work, and how can we overcome it and feel more connected.

You can find out more and purchase the book here.

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Links between pain and trauma Sat, 19 Dec 2020 12:02:21 +0000
Polyvagal theory developed by Dr Stephen Porges is very influential in the trauma world. The essence of polyvagal theory is that feeling safe is the fundamental drive for humans. If there is the perception of danger (‘neuroception’ is the term used by Porges), then we have a range of protective physiological reflexes; ‘social engagement’, ‘mobilising’ or ‘immobilising’. Unfortunately most of the pain literature I am aware of does not reference trauma or polyvagal theory. Here are some links that help bridge from polyvagal theory into some of the research in chronic pain.
There are good discussions on body mapping and distorted perception of the body in pain. I would link distorted body perception strongly to immobilisation, and the associated dissociation, outlined in polyvagal theory.
‘….persistent pain can be reduced by therapies that alter (normalize) the person’s perception of her own body. Indeed, patients with persistent pain often show evidence of disturbed ownership and body image’
Brodal P (2017) A neurobiologist’s attempt to understand persistent pain. Scand J Pain
Kozlowksa et al (2015) Fear and Defense Cascade, is a big summary of the physiology of fear. It includes polyvagal theory and also looks at some analgesia pathways that may be activated in parallel to changes in the autonomic nervous system in response to threat. It is quite a dense paper, but very good to help understand there are a range of nervous system patterns in threat response.
In pain science there is a clear definition of pain as a protective reflex in response to perception of danger (often unconscious and habitual). This is a link to the importance of neuroception and finding safety in polyvagal theory.
‘Pain is, at a very fundamental level, all about your brain’s assessment of safety: unsafe things hurt. If your brain thinks you’re safe, pain goes down.’ Paul Ingraham
Inflammation, immune system activity and complex interactions with the nervous system are discussed at length by pain specialists and help to explain the complexity of chronic pain.
The Mystery of Chronic Pain – Dr Elliot Krane (2011). This is a wonderful 8 min talk on how pain can amplify and that it involves nervous and immune system interactions.
Inflammation is an output to protect led by the immune system, pain is also an output to protect led by the nervous system. Mobilising (‘fight-or-flight’) and immobilising (‘freeze’), from polyvagal theory, can be framed as outputs to protect. The perception of danger is the input that triggers an array of protective reflexes. It is useful to think of them as parallel outputs to protect rather than one causing the other.
‘The basic idea is that chronic pain is often driven by dysregulation of a “supersystem” that coordinates defensive responses to injury. The supersystem results from dynamic interaction between different subsystems, most notably the nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system.’ Todd Hargrove 2014…/a-systems…
You can also find versions of this framework in Moseley GL and Butler DS (2017) Explain Pain Supercharged. NOIGroup
Here are two great blogs discussing trauma informed pain care from a patient perspective (but outside of polyvagal model)
‘With sufficient understanding of trauma, I believe my clinicians could take steps to avoid, or at least minimise, inadvertently causing me increased stress or re-traumatisation and support me to understand how past trauma may play a part in my persistent pain condition. Most importantly I would hope my clinicians would value and promote my resilience and enhance my well-being.’
And a note of caution, suffering is complex!!! ‘Let’s not make people feel that the trauma they experienced was the main reason they are experiencing persistent pain’
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Can feeling your body lessen anxiety? Wed, 18 Nov 2020 11:37:59 +0000 Understanding how anxiety is created by our nervous system trying to protect us, and how our fight-or-flight mechanisms can get stuck, can significantly lessen the fear experienced during anxiety attacks.

I’m deeply curious about how minds and bodies interact. I am passionate about working through the body to promote health, not just physical health but emotional and mental health as well.

I don’t think these things are ever separate.

Helping people with anxiety has traditionally been seen as the territory of mental health professionals. Anxiety is most commonly framed as a psychological problem. My clinical experience for over 20 years has been that by safely connecting to the body, some people feel less anxious.

Many people assume connecting to and feeling our body is natural and easy. It’s not.

It takes a lot of practice and skill to connect to our body. We can easily slip into habits and fantasies when we perceive the inner world of sensations.

Many of us in modern culture live in a state of disembodied abstraction.

In my book ‘Anxiety is Really Strange’, anxiety is explained in an easy-to-understand, engaging graphic format with tips and strategies to relieve its symptoms, and change the mind’s habits for a more positive outlook

You can purchase the all english language Really Strange books here:

Singing Dragon UK, Europe, and all countries excluding the USA, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand: (new site launched)
Singing Dragon USA: (new site launching January 2021)
Singing Dragon Canada: (new site launching January 2021)
Singing Dragon Australia/New Zealand: (new site launching January 2021)

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How does changing the body change how we think, feel and remember? Wed, 12 Aug 2020 15:41:44 +0000 From my mid-20s onwards, the question ‘how do we feel?’ has been a fascination for me. How do we construct our experience? What are our beliefs and how does that affect our experience of our bodies? Volunteering with people with learning difficulties and then working full time in mental health radically changed my worldview.

After being a rubbish engineer and then systems analyst, for 8 years I worked in community care, day centres and latterly as an advocate for Mind in Camden supporting people to access mental health services. I learnt a lot about how people are marginalised and have power stripped away from them for somehow being perceived as ‘less than’. 

My experience of yoga opened the possibility of changing mental health through presence and orienting to the body, rather than talking treatments. The fascination with embodiment has continued for the last two plus decades.

The core question became: how does changing the body change how we think, feel and remember? 

I started to study emotions, stress, pain and trauma. I trained as a chiropractor and the core of my work and my practice became learning how to be more skillful at feeling. 

The more I learned about bodywork, and the science of pain, the more I began to understand that pain is a complex emotional event. Yes, the structure of our bodies makes a contribution to our pain experience, but it’s not the most important contribution. There are so many other important things happening in people’s lives:

– The meaning they attach to it
– The story they have about it
– The resources they have access to
– Their previous experience of trauma
– Their level of stress
– Perhaps even their faith. 

All of these things affect how people assess the feelings of pain inside them.

That’s why it’s important to be careful as practitioners about thinking we can diagnose somebody simply by touching their body and exploring the physical structures are working, or not working. 

The great thing is that, even though it’s hard to really know what someone is really experiencing, we can learn to feel the inside of ourselves much more clearly. 

Interoception is a lovely new science-y word to describe our experience of the inside of our bodies. It can be thought of as ‘inward touch’ to meet the slow background tone of the body. A leading scientist in this field – Bud Graig says that we can “train our ability to feel” and this has enormous consequences – it gives us more choices around emotions, pain and suffering.

Through meditative awareness and training our capability for inner feeling, we can learn to have a greater understanding and a greater range of language and choices around what we feel.

For example, if you’ve been told you have back pain because you’re old, or because you back is out of alignment, we can teach people to have different responses to the alarming, tight feeling in their back, and help them learn it’s probably not because you’re old, or because things are out of line. It’s possibly an alarm signal, and you can learn how to become more resilient to responding to that feeling. 

I now feel passionate about client-led work. I can’t tell you whether what you’re feeling is true or not true, but I can help you shape a new narrative, and I can help you take away some of the fear that’s often associated with pain:

– The fear of moving
– The fear that it’s going to change
– The fear that you’re going to be stuck in these feelings
– The fear that you’re a broken machine

These narratives are stories that we can explore. “Tell me your story” is a really great way to start a clinical session.

The story might be that your grandmother has back pain and your mother had back pain, and therefore you have back pain. 

Instead of doing a few tests and responding ‘you’ve got a lax ligament here, and that’s why you’re in pain”, which is what I used to do as a chiropractor, now I prefer to work with the narrative:

‘You’re not your mother, and you’re not your grandmother’.

This might change the way you experience the alarming sensation in your back, and your fear of getting old. Instead of imposing a diagnosis, we can create a new story, a new meaning and a new framework around what pain is, or isn’t. 

Pain emerges when your brain decides that something is unsafe. At the heart of pain is a decision made inside you, by the threat detection system and the immune system which says ‘something isn’t right here’. The brain decides how much danger it thinks there is, and pain is an alarm signal to tell you to do something different. 

There are interesting connections with trauma here. Trauma is also about what happens when your threat detection systems decide you’re unsafe. In response the body either speeds up to try to survive ‘fight or flight’’, or there’s a collapse, a shutdown or a dissociation. 

Safety is the fundamental question that a human being is always trying to answer. Pain is a possible response to something that is perceived as unsafe, as is speeding up or shutting down. They are all outputs to protect, in response to a perceived lack of safety. 

This is why finding safety is so key. 

Anything that helps you feel safe is a resource that promotes health. Safety includes anything that’s resourcing: 

– Behaviours that help you look after yourself
– anything that helps you feel in control
– anything that gives you a sense of agency
– memories of safe times

You can also build safety in a fantasy world – for example, I have clients who build an image in their minds of a safe place – and then we can bring that sense of safety into your body in the present moment.

Upcoming events:

Trauma-releasing exercise are an excellent practice to learn when it comes to finding safety in the body. I’ve recently taken my TRE trainings online, so they’re available from anywhere in the world.

Online TRE Intro day: Sep 20th
Online TRE Module 1: Aug 25-26th, Sep 12-13
Online TRE Module 2: Aug 5-6, Oct 27-28
Online TRE Module 3: Oct 10-11, Nov 26-27

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Pain, Perception, Trauma and Safety Thu, 18 Jun 2020 14:48:56 +0000 Why is it that two people can experience the same stressful event, but have very different outcomes?

I recently joined Avni Trivedi on the Speak From the Body podcast to talk about deepening feeling, changing the narrative and addressing stress, pain and trauma.

We explore justice and inequality, how to tend to our sensitivities rather than seeing ourselves as ‘snowflakes’ (22.12mins to 28.07mins), how to reframe our experience of complex feelings around persistent pain, as well as embodiment practices to help to ease trauma and create safety.

You can listen to the podcast here.

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Pain Is Really Strange: Slides from Embodiment and Pain Day 2020-06-13 Sat, 13 Jun 2020 14:04:46 +0000

Slides from Steve Haines talk on pain at ‘Embodiment and Pain Day’ 13 Jun 2020, hosted by

The Embodiment Conference.

Parts 1 and 2 of slide show

Parts 3 and 4 of slide show

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Touch and Trauma: Slides from Embodiment Conference 2020-05-30 Sat, 30 May 2020 16:32:55 +0000

Steve Haines presentation slides @ Trauma Education for Facilitators 30 May 2020.

On the panel with Dr Stephen Porges

Part 1 Why Touch 

Part 2 How Does Touch Work?

Part 3 Losing Contact and Part 4 Relational Touch – A New Paradigm

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How to Find Safety During the Pandemic Mon, 11 May 2020 13:00:35 +0000 The amount you’re affected by an unprecedented event like this current pandemic depends on your resources and your relationship to health. We all do the best we can, given our history and current circumstances.

Many of our responses are rooted in primitive reflexes embedded in old parts of our nervous system. How we as individuals express the primitive reflexes of mobilising (‘fight-or-flight’) or immobilising (‘freeze’) is based on previously successful strategies we’ve learnt as we developed.

Bringing awareness and choice to our habitual responses and our deepest imprints is a huge part of finding safety at times like this. This is necessarily an embodied awareness as most of our defining experiences are encoded non-verbally and non-consciously in our bodies, mediated by old, reflex parts of the brain.

There are three key steps in the process of finding safety:

ONE: Connect to resources

We have lots of health within us, and our bodies can guide us to find them. By looking for the things that make us feel good in our bodies, we can enhance our connection to health. By doing this over time, we build up a library of resources that help us to feel healthy, vital and safe. 

NB: If even thinking about your body is activating try OMG – Orient Move Ground to settle. You can try again another day or try with a friend or guide present to help you.

Sit for a while and reflect:

What thoughts, ideas, people, pets, food and places (which you may need to imagine or visit virtually right now) make me feel more alive?

Ask yourself:

  • Is there somewhere inside me that is relatively easy, warm, comfortable right now?
  • In the midst of all that is happening for me, what tells me that I’m ok?
  • However small or tenuous, see if you can celebrate any feelings of health inside you.

TWO: Find places of health in your body

We can cultivate core, reliable sensations that we can remember and be with, even in the darkest of times. By looking for the places in our bodies that feel good, we can enhance our capacity to feel safe and well.

Try this embodiment practice:

  • Let your awareness spread through your whole body, as if it is a fluid.
  • Look for places in your body that feel good – they might be an area of the body, or just one spot. When you’ve found one of these places, simply be with the sensations for a while. 
  • Reflect: how does it make you feel, and what effect does it have on your body and mind?
  • Be as specific as you can about the sensations you feel – ask yourself, can I name three specific sensations?

THREE: Practice Moving Towards and Moving Away

By asking yourself simple questions and practicing simple techniques, you can start the process of deepening into felt sensations in your body. This in itself can be very grounding, and can lay the foundation for more safety. You are learning it is possible to negotiate with difficult feelings.

Ask yourself:

  • How do I feel in my whole body right now?
  • Can I connect to my resources
  • Am I safe enough to try exploring a feeling that is relatively difficult? 
  • Where do I feel this anxiety / overwhelm / fear in my body?
  • Go slowly as you move towards the area that is difficult. Don’t spend too long there – maximum 60 secs on the first go. 
  • Practice moving away from the difficult feeling and reconnecting to your resources.
  • Reflect on the difficult feeling: What three simple words can I use to describe these sensations?
  • Repeat moving towards and moving away upto 2 more times, then rest.

Pain and suffering act like a magnet that grabs our awareness. The journey to embody our experience is a big step in developing resources and finding safety in the face of the overwhelm, fear and anxiety so many of us are facing during this pandemic.

The good news is that the body gives a whole new theatre in which our experience and emotions can be played out. Through embodiment practices like the ones described above, we can move towards and away from sensations, slow things down, control what is centre stage in our bodies in a way that is not possible with mental functioning alone.

Learning that we have emotions and sensations and that we do not need to become them is very important. Pain is unlikely to be the only sensation possible. Stepping back and finding a wider context, especially in challenging times, often facilitates a transformational shift.

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Finding Safety: Trauma and the Body, Steve Haines, Somatic Movement Summit 2020 Wed, 06 May 2020 08:29:48 +0000

Finding Safety: Trauma and the Body

What is trauma? When your physiology is stuck, you are stuck. Trauma can be defined as being stuck in protective reflexes. Dissociation is a protective reflex most people are unaware of. In my experience, most people dissociate most of the time. Connecting to your body can be really hard and confusing. But, the evidence is clear, we can learn to feel safe, we can learn to be more embodied.

Steve Haines shares how embodiment is a central tool that can be trained to heal pain, anxiety and trauma.

In This Session:

Trauma is anything that overwhelms but understanding the protective reflexes of ‘fight-or-flight’ or ‘freeze’ we get stuck in is clinical gold dust and explains many distressing conditions

Dissociation (‘freeze’) is surprisingly common and often fundamentally misunderstood in body work practices yet is the single most powerful thing to address to help heal pain, anxiety and trauma

Feeling is hard and complex, but trainable and through a constant, ongoing negotiation, the world of interoception can open up with skillful practice and support

Questions covered:

What is trauma?

What is dissociation?

How do we feel?

Why embodiment?

What is an emotion?

This interview is part of the Somatic Movement Summit, a free online event where you can discover fluid motion as medicine for your body and mind. For more information, please visit This recording is a copyright of The Shift Network. All rights reserved.

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10 Ways to Work with Anxiety in Times of Crisis Tue, 14 Apr 2020 12:38:49 +0000 Many people are experiencing more anxiety than usual in the face of the global pandemic. Whether you’d like some guidance for your own anxiety, or you’re working with people who need extra support, I hope these ten approaches help you to feel more freedom and ease.

Anxiety is strange and complex. It is, however, rooted in physiological responses inside us. Anxiety is much more than faulty emotion circuits. We can learn to reframe sensations and be free to respond differently, using simple tools and practices:

1. Grounding

In times like these, it’s key that you consistently put down some roots and find ways to wake your body up. Grounding is about creating safety and connection in the present moment. And, essentially, grounding is about connection with the body. It helps you feel real.

2. Work to create a safe space

Many of us feel safe by floating off, or by thinking quickly or limiting ourselves. Notice these patterns, especially reading news, or talking about the pandemic. Work to create safe space, find safe people (this might need to be online right now), say safe things. Changing the context can lead to feelings of ease and comfort in the body.

3. H.A.L.T

This is a simple tool from the field of addiction. Do not make a decision if you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. Whatever the complex forces acting within us, we have to satisfy our fundamental human needs – this will reduce your sensitivity to things that make you anxious. 

4. Do the simple stuff well

This may sound basic, but it’s important, and it’s easy to get out of rhythm in a time of crisis. Eat healthy food at regular intervals, de-stress in whatever ways work for you, engage with people (again, this might need to be online right now), and most of all, rest and take care of your sleep.

5. Cognitive distraction

Stepping outside our own seemingly out of control process can be helpful when we’re anxious. And cognitive distraction, for example making lists, can be useful, but being in nature is best (if you’re in a part of the world where that’s possible right now).

6. Cultivate awe

Cultivating awe slows down the nervous system. When was the last time you looked at the sunset or checked out the stars or simply appreciated your aliveness?

7. Connect

Connection to body, connection to self, connection to others, connection to nature, connection to mystery. These are all interwoven, interdependent and key when it comes to easing anxiety in difficult times.

8. Reframe

Reframing is a tried-and-tested technique for changing anxiety, used by psychologists and mindfulness practitioners. Note the nuances and details of the sensations inside you. Try “where do I feel that in my body right now?’ rather than “why do I feel anxious?“. Keep noticing. Go slow. Cultivate the gap between physiological shifts and co-emerging emotions, thoughts and memories. In the gap, can you reframe “I am anxious“, to “there is something like anxiety inside me“.

9. Acknowledge the simple logic of your old brain

Ask yourself, “what’s the worst that could happen“. If you’re full of catastrophic thoughts, explore them, but do not trust them. Know your primitive brain is most likely mistakenly predicting life-or-death scenarios. Ground yourself, and change the context.

10. Cultivate your inner cheerleader

Getting bogged down in negative self-talk can be a real problem in anxiety. Try not to get lost in over-thinking and listening to your inner critic. Anxiety is an over-protective feeling. Have self-compassion towards the cautious, fearful parts of you, but do not feed the flames. Cultivate your inner cheerleader: “you are fine, you can do this“. 

It’s good to remember that to overcome anxiety you do not need to remember or understand the cause. The goal is simply to use a helpful tool, like the ones above, to self regulate in the present moment. 

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