We all know that stressful situations cause us to tense up. Our bodies contract to protect us; this is a good thing. Tensing up only becomes a problem if we cannot relax when the stressor is gone. Just as ice is built to melt, our bodies are built to unwind.
However, situations of unrelenting stress, abuse, or oppression do not allow us enough breathing space to unwind. Instead, we keep on contracting and accumulating tension in the body. Eventually we can develop chronic rigidity that undermines our health.
Reducing stress and healing trauma both involve restoring fluidity to the body so that our energy and emotions can move with ease and purpose. Fortunately, our wise animal bodies have all kinds of ways to unwind and let go. All we need to do is trust our body’s natural impulses to yawn, sigh, cry, laugh, shake, twitch, etc.
Unfortunately, in North American the dominant culture expects us to minimize or censor these impulses, especially around other people.
What Does Unwinding Look Like?
Unwinding involves externalizing or releasing energy or emotion outward. Sometimes unwinding happens through voluntary expressive practices of singing, drawing, painting, and dancing etc. More often unwinding is involuntary (although expressive arts can catalyze involuntary unwinding).
In addition to yawning, sighing, crying, laughing, shaking, and twitching, our bodies spontaneously release accumulated stress and trauma through sweating, coughing, burping, yelling, growling, jaw-trembling and teeth chattering.
Often these involuntary energy releases are considered to be impolite or inappropriate to express around other people, especially if they continue longer than a couple of minutes.
It always amazes me how thoroughly and consistently cultural norms of politeness in North America obstruct unwinding. Let’s look at yawning, for example. When we yawn around others, they ask us if we are bored or tired. Maybe that is why most of my clients stifle their yawns.
Did you know that when you yawn, you release tension stored in your jaw, throat, lips, palate, ears, and even your chest and scalp? A series of yawns can create profound relaxation in the chest, throat and face.
The practice of allowing yawns, especially full, wide-open yawns is so rare that I’ve developed a slogan for my clients: “Yawning before talking.” That means, when a yawn shows up, it is time to drop everything and let as many yawns come as want to.
I have found that when we allow ourselves to yawn as many times as we need to, the jaw opens wider and wider. The eyes may water. Each yawn becomes softer and easier. Your mind might quiet down.
Over weeks or months, your jaw muscles can permanently soften. You may stop grinding your teeth. This is true softening, true unwinding. All this potential healing is present in our yawns, and it is free. To think we stifle this process on a regular basis, in the name of politeness!
Unwinding is Impolite and Messy
Here are some other ways the dominant culture stifles body wisdom for the sake of conformity or politeness:
• It is not okay to cry in most workplaces.
• Repeated coughing is seen as a disruption–you are expected to leave the room and take it elsewhere. While coughing can indicate that you are ill, it is just as likely that your throat is trying to release pent up energy or emotion.
• If you shake or waggle your foot for more than a few seconds, people comment on it.
• If you tremble, you are seen as weak, crazy or out of control.
• It is socially unacceptable to laugh when we are grieving the loss of a loved one, even though laughter reflects the incomprehensible absurdity of loss.
• We even carry this censoring into our intimate relationships and our alone time. For example, we have been taught so well to fear or be ashamed of our teeth chattering, that many of us cannot even allow it in private. That is so sad. There is so much *free* healing built right into our bodies, and are afraid of it!
Many years ago I was the birth coach for my sister’s home labor. As births often are, the labor was intense. My niece finally slid out of my sister, and the midwife pronounced her healthy. Hearing that all was well, I burst into uncontrollable sobbing. A neighbor who was present grabbed me and hissed “pull yourself together” in my ear as if my outburst was harmful. I immediately shut down, feeling stifled and resentful. I was tense for days. Looking back, I believe those tears were my body’s attempt to acknowledge that the crisis was over.
Our bodies know what to do, and when to do it.
Midwifery for Unwinding
Because our natural impulses to express and unwind have been stifled, many of us need to (re)learn how to support unwinding in ourselves and others. Here are some tips:
There are many ways to create a sense of safety, support and ground in the body:
Establishing a sense of safety in the body is the foundation for unwinding. When the body knows it is held and supported, it is much more willing to let go.
A few years ago my two budgies were attacked by a cat while they were in their cage. Fortunately they were not physically injured.
Once the cat-danger was removed, my partner and I each took a bird onto a finger. They gripped our fingers and trembled violently; we warmly encouraged them to “let it out.” After twenty minutes they were fine. They did not develop an aversion to their cage, or to cats. A few days later a cat sat outside on our window ledge and peered at the budgies. They remained relaxed. They had not been traumatized.
Here is what my partner and I did as my parakeets shook for twenty minutes straight. We stayed present with them, constantly letting them know we were there for them. “That’s right, I am right here with you.” We were patient–We let them rest on our fingers as long as they wanted. We encouraged them to unwind, in fact we praised them for shaking: “You are so smart, you know just what to do!” and “Good job!” We trusted their bodies.
You can provide this kind of healing space for yourself (and others). Make sure you are in a safe place to unwind, then give yourself all the time you need to sweat, cry, shake, laugh, etc. Talk to yourself in a kind, encouraging way. Trust your body to know how long it needs to unwind.
Do not censor or try to “make sense” of what your body is doing. Unwinding is unwinding. That is all the sense it needs to make. Just relax and let it happen. Don’t worry–when you have finished unwinding, your rational mind will come online again.
If you have the urge to express your sensations and feelings but feel stuck, you can gently encourage your body to begin unwinding by singing, humming, dancing, swaying, writing, etc.
There healing modalities specifically designed to encourage unwinding, such as
*David Bercelli’s TRE Exercises:
Sometimes these methods can open up a torrent of shaking or emoting. This is perfectly normal. There is no need to tell yourself scary stories. It is just your wise body being a body.
If you do become scared, you can use safety and containment practices
to slow down or stop what is happening. Practice “stopping” until you get good at it and confident that you can stop unwinding at will. Knowing that you can slow down or stop the unwinding process can give you permission to surrender to your body’s need to release, and reassure you that you are not “out of control.”
Another way to prevent yourself from becoming frightened or overwhelmed is to have someone you trust hold space so you feel safe to continue shaking, crying, etc.
Take Breaks. Don’t Push Yourself
Finally, there is no need to force expression or unwinding. Do not push for a big catharsis. Unwinding does not have to be dramatic to be effective; in fact, it is often subtle and quiet. Your mind does not get to dictate what “should” happen, or how long you need to yawn, shake, etc. You will not unwind faster by forcing things.
By the same token, it is not helpful to impose interpretations or meanings onto your spontaneous body sounds and movements. If an insight wants to emerge, trust it to emerge on its own; you do not need search for it.
Unwinding has its own pace and timing. Many of us have learned this principle by experiencing the grieving process. Grief has its own mysterious rhythm and pace. Moments of intense sadness come and go. You may find yourself crying for a few minutes at random moments throughout the day. Let the tears come, and when they are done, let them go.
This principle is just as true for yawns, or whole-body shudders that arise without any identifiable meaning or content. Let them ebb and flow.
I invite you to make time for unwinding. Make sacred space for your body to be rude and unruly. Let yourself move and make noise. Then, when it is done, do something else. Rest. Sleep. Drink water. Work. Go for a walk. Watch a stupid movie.
Let me know how it goes.