site title, Brooklyn Feldenkrais

Somatic Trauma Healing + an Integrated Approach to Chronic Pain

Dan Rindler, Somatic Experiencing and Feldenkrais Practitioner

How Come it Makes Me Nervous to Relax?!

“I can’t do these sessions anymore, it makes me too nervous to relax.” 

Why would it make anyone anxious to relax? It sounds so paradoxical. And yet, about 5 years ago, after a few challenging sessions, a client told me this after a couple of challenging sessions. 

So, why would it make anyone anxious to relax? Maybe rather than being strange, it’s actually a universal experience. Perhaps we’ve all actually felt this way at some point in our lives, though we might not have put it in these words. Instead, maybe we said, “I took my eye off the ball,” or “I let my guard down.” For some folks relaxing, is equated with a lack of safety on a nervous system level, because they associate the feelings of relaxation with not being attentive or alert in some way. 

It’s also true that heightened body sensations can come with relaxing out of one’s habitual pattern of muscle contraction. When we’re sitting, standing or moving differently than usual, it can bring our attention to unusual sensations in the body. For some folks with difficult experiences in their past or present life, tuning into the body sensations can feel too challenging and they begin to form a story that it makes them too nervous to relax. 

Relaxation isn’t a goal for every moment of the day. When you walk through a dark alley, you need to be alert to your surroundings. Those who are marginalized by our culture experience constant reminders that confirm that they need to maintain a level of vigilance. 

Maybe when we feel relaxing makes us too nervous, what we’re saying is I don’t know how to relax an appropriate amount for this situation. I don’t have enough gears available to me in my system to slow down just the right amount. So when I do try to let go, it makes me feel too vulnerable. 

Part of the work I do with those who feel this reaction strongly can be to learn to access more of the “gears” of their nervous system response. Through a somatic approach, we find freedom from the all or nothing framing of the problem, and find that there are many gradations of relaxation, some which feel safer in the body/nervous system than others. We begin to have access to a broader range of reactions, and more possibilities for feeling settled, present with our experience and connected to others. 

I don’t remember what I said to that client years ago – hopefullly something supportive! But I do remember feeling that I needed some additional support as a practitioner. I wanted to have the skills to work with the people just like this person, who was dealing with the kind of struggles I’d set out on this career path to help in the first place. It inspired me to sign up for the Somatic Experiencing training and have been weaving the SE approach into my Feldenkrais practice since day 1 of that training. The SE approach has helped me on my own path, as it has simultaneously helped me to support others. We can each keep finding our next approximation of how it can make us feel safe and relaxed to relax.

Dan Rindler, GCFP, SEP

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