Move your body: Sometimes when escape from danger is impossible or we feel utterly powerless, we experience the “freeze” response. This last resort survival mechanism, which is mediated by a branch of the vagus nerve which goes deep into the midbrain, releases pain reducing endorphins and enables psychological distance. Think of a gazelle motionless in the jaws of a lion, a soldier trapped in a burning Humvee, or perhaps yourself, an American, feeling that post-electoral forces way beyond your control are going to have long-term negative effects on your life.
Physical activity which quiets the agitation of prolonged fight or flight, also breaks up physical tension and can help free us from emotional numbing and freezing. Any activity can be useful. Aerobic exercise, for example, has repeatedly been shown to improve mood in depressed people and yoga has recently proved successful in decreasing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. The movement technique I like best, the one we always use in our Center for Mind-Body Medicine trainings and groups, is Shaking and Dancing.
Shaking and Dancing may seem goofy, but it seems to be effective on a psychological as well as biological level. I’ve done it with tens of thousands of people: in the midst of wars and after terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and hurricanes and also with cancer patients terrified about their prognosis and burdened by their treatment’s side effects. It literally shakes loose tensions and then after a period of mindful quiet allows your body to move as it needs-- to express feeling, find freedom. You can do it by yourself or with friends. Kids love it.
Shaking and dancing has three stages. Begin by standing with your feet shoulder width. Start shaking from your feet up through your knees, hips, chest, shoulders, and head. Do it for five or ten minutes. Then relax and breathe for two minutes, aware of your body and your breathing. Then let your body move to music that inspires you. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds (Every little thing gonna be alright)” is a song I often use.
Shaking and dancing is almost always energizing as well as relaxing. Sometimes it brings up buried emotions that need to be released. On occasion there are miraculous shifts, as the rising energy of activated hope dissipates the gathered clouds of despair. I’ve seen this again and again, with Syrian refugees, in Gaza and Israel after a war, a few weeks ago with traumatized “Water Protectors” at the Standing Rock Reservation, and, most recently, with deeply disappointed Clinton supporters, and victorious, but still very tense, Trump adherents.
James S. Gordon, MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression, Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, and a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Family Medicine at Georgetown Medical School. Soft Belly and Shaking and Dancing audios are available for download at www.cmbm.org