How to Get Going, for Chronic Freezers

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Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Momentum is defined as “the quantity of motion of a moving body.”

Ugh! It’s that whole, “in order to feel better you need to exercise, but in order to will yourself to exercise, you need to feel better” scenario. If you aren’t familiar with the freeze response, you may want to read about it here before moving on. If you have never been depressed and do not relate to the first sentence (“Buck up! I exercise when I don’t feel like it all the time!”), I don’t think this piece will serve you.

I work with folks to support a healing shift from dominant states of fight, flight, freeze, fawn and their symptoms. This means, fortunately, that I have worked deeply with the states that underlie my own resistance to movement and exercise.

My bitterness in the face of exercise, historically speaking, has been significant. Over the years I have met many an internal and external invitation to go for a run or do xyz workout with a healthy “I’M GOOD THANKS!!” 😘

I have also done several rounds of 1–2 month-long, guilt-based programs designed to finally, completely, “get my ass in gear.” I do not disparage these good faith attempts. I think they were expressions of a deep desire and longing, just like other methods and practices I have taken up in life. That said, I am happy to report that it has been some time since I participated in any kind of shame-based exercise.

Don’t worry, I am in good health! At this time I dance and walk (almost) every day, and here and there do bodyweight workouts, runs and yoga. Overall, I have far more energy, feel more availabile to move in my world, and my emotional tone over the last many years has shifted from what I now consider a relative flatness, to a truthfully delightful buoyancy, if I do say so myself!

So, I would like to share some wisdom I have received related to movement and momentum, for folks dealing with symptoms of ongoing freeze.

But wait, Maggie, what is the help of “leveraging” momentum when you don’t have any?

Good question! Fortunately or unfortunately, the momentum I speak of is not the “momentum” (read: squeezing and grinding) of gathering yourself against the weight of 21st century capitalist gravity to perform your day’s many clear or undefined tasks, including but not limited to: securing a presentable home, securing income, securing a purpose, securing relationships, securing excellence in parenthood, securing fame on social media, etc.

…Whew! Thank goodness.

But then, like, what are you talking about?

We’ll get into it!

There will be theory and some practice.

First, a refresher on freeze: freeze is a stress response that inhibits movement and conserves energy. It is an autonomic response the body expresses when threat is perceived as high or existential. Freeze involves some level of dissociation, which could be described as “detachment” or the exit of consciousness or awareness from a given experience. Freeze and dissociation happen on a spectrum of intensity, from spacing out for a moment or feeling brain foggy, to being physically unable to move or speak, as in sleep paralysis, or as can happen in an assault or an abusive relationship. For wild animals, freeze has a beginning, middle and end. For us “domesticated” folk, freeze can hang on under the surface, dragging us down for years on end. An important thing to note for our purpose here is that freeze is an active inhibition of the movement/responsiveness of the sympathetic nervous system. Whether this inhibitory brake is working against self-protective or creative movement impulses from within, or responsiveness to things that may be happening on the outside, there is some degree of holding pattern in place.

The good news, then, is that the energy you accurately experience yourself not having is reflective of the energy of your state, not necessarily the energy you may have access to if another state happened to take place. Folks with chronic illness find themselves very clearly limited re: energy output in a day, so I just want to caveat this whole piece and say that these ideas and practices are not intended as generalizations that apply to everyone, but humble offerings for those interested in somatic approaches to wellbeing.

Movement is something that is never not there. There is no such thing as absolute stillness, just as there is no such thing as absolute cold. This may sound like terrible news to folks who have a hard time relaxing, but consider that states of deep relaxation could be the perfect ground for responsiveness and readiness! You could also consider that if stillness and relaxation are relative, that means there is always more of it to explore.

Anyways…

We are here on account of our particles, our wiggly bits… rubbing, dancing and interacting until they reach the complexity and expression required for a given situation.

So how do we “release” the silent and debilitating brake on our sympathetic energy? Are we sure that’s a good idea? How do we know this energy is even there? Isn’t the problem that our system is saying “I give up” in some way? Don’t we need to be roused out of this slump? Well, yes, but perhaps not in the way you think.

In the healing framework I use, one of our aims is to provide a safe and guided space for the nervous system to experience small, non-overwhelming “thresholds” or waves of fight and flight-type energy. Moving through these waves helps a system feel itself protecting itself, through healthy aggression or saying “let’s get outta here” and escaping a bad situation. Thresholds, at an intensity that the nervous system as a whole is able to accept and integrate, expand a nervous system’s capacity to experience greater degrees of energy without becoming overwhelmed or distressed. We know that a helpful and healthful threshold of intensity is reached when one can experience the full arc of the wave, without dissociating from either themselves or the environment. This means staying connected, or in some sense present to, the current time and place. These “ideal learning thresholds” often take place at an intensity that is lower than one may think. For example, we may work with feeling a bit sad- experiencing the arc of the emotion, including its downward trajectory, in lieu of shooting into despair and staying there. Or the quality of feeling irritated for a few minutes, before shifting into some other experience.

The reason I said fight and flight-type energy in the last paragraph is because more good news is that we can experience these cycles of arousal, even if we are not used to it, in ways that are actually enjoyable! What? Yeah!

We believe it is possible to resolve quashed self-protective responses like fight and flight, and their associative emotions like grief and anger, through the reappropriation of pleasure and play. In fact, it is the healing appropriation of pleasurable experiences themselves that set the stage for the integration of “negative” content like anger, grief, and the like. The teachings and methodology I draw from and attempt to simplify here come from the tradition of my teacher Steve Hoskinson, founder of Organic Intelligence.

So: we support cycles of sympathetic arousal, and this can happen through simple, wholesome human pleasure. The enjoyment itself is growth. It is the ground that receives or holds painful experiences, that affirms to us that despite everything, we’re going to be okay. That we have our sources of pleasure to return to, when the challenges ebb.

So, how can we work practically with these ideas, and how can we use them to leverage our own momentum?

We must tend to and reinforce our happiness as if it were a small child, a sprout, growing under our watchful eye. We must take up an ethos of positive reinforcement with ourselves.

In this vein, we shall attempt to reinforce the littlest, bittiest, inklingest sprouts of playfulness, exploration, curiosity, pleasure, joy, and imagination. Just those words themselves make you think of movement, don’t they?Coming out of chronic freeze, we would be served by adding a little more oomph to the system, to get our sympathetic juices going.

But first, to recap:

  • Sympathetic energies are motor programs; they are there to move us. Not only to defend against, but to play, create and care for!
  • Freeze modulates intensity and provides a respite from energies that are toooo much.
  • It is possible, even for folks experiencing deep and long term freeze, to gain access to enjoyable movement, given supportive conditions.
  • This can happen in the context of small, tolerable experiences that take place in PLAY, experimentation, and pleasure.
  • Just because you resist productivity or exercise doesn’t mean you are doing life wrong, are a bad person, or lack some intrinsic quality necessary for happiness.

Practice, Part I:

Working with freeze is the work of establishing rhythm between things where there has been a fixed or stuck relationship.

I will say now that my angle in terms of practice here is a bit… dancey. If the notion of dancing is immediately horrifying and makes you want to stop right now, I just want to say that there are plenty of other activities to put these ideas into practice (my personal bulleted list below), but perhaps you would be up for seeing what is next with no expectation of participation…?

Okay. If you wouldn’t mind, please, choose a song.

I appreciate that even this step can be difficult. I work with a number of folks who used to identify as people who love music, but just aren’t as “into it” anymore. Upon exploration we find that even though they don’t listen to music as often, there are some go-tos that are pleasurable now and then. Perhaps your guilty pop anthem from 1995?

We need something with rhythm. A little uptempo. A song you are happy to listen to, to receive. If you need to change it later, that’s fine. I recommend against music that activates the moods that tend to overwhelm you, like despair or melancholy. I also recommend against EDM that is trancy and does not include human voices.

If you wouldn’t mind, please turn on your song now.

Alrighty. As you experience the music, notice any little bit of response that happens in the body. I’m talking about a little groove, a little bitty movement. A wee head bob, or perhaps a sway. Whether it’s your head, your feet, your fingers- something that started all on its own.

On its own, you say? On its own, I say!

Maybe your butt cheeks gently clench back and forth to the rhythm, or your toes start squeezing under the blanket. If it’s going, let it go!

Notice how the body joins the rhythm without much effort. Even if it is small, see about simply enjoying the music and noticing this “impulse-based” movement. Now that you’ve noticed the impulse, feel the music again. You may be surprised at other areas of the body that get involved when your attention is on the beat itself, rather than a concern over how or whether you are moving!

This is, in a way, a practice of releasing self-consciousness in movement and energy.

It’s so simple, right? Like, “Aren’t you just saying put on music and dance?” Well, yeah. But what if your people forgot how? What if you don’t dance and are out of practice? What if the IDEA of dancing makes you fearful? What about those who experience body dysphoria, or dysmorphia, and find it truly difficult to experience their body in an enjoyable way? Not so simple anymore, huh? I have a personal “authentic dance” practice, and it is intimate, private and vulnerable.

So take your time. Turn the jams down if you start to feel “frizzed out” or overwhelmed. For those who experience dissociation, it is a PRACTICE to be present with movement in the body, so no need to push it.

That said, if your groove is good and grooving, why not see where it goes?

…Speaking of seeing where it goes, I often notice that my restless or anxious energy is given an opportunity for greater expression in this practice. Like, who knew my incessant and inconvenient knee bobbing under the table was actually a call to rehearse my audition tape for STOMP??

Practice, Part II

The problem with moralistic calls to exercise is that they treat people like their lives take place in a vacuum. That our senses of motivation and agency themselves are not comprised of the myriad entanglements of family, culture, environment, mental health, and on and on. I’ve made a strong practice of ignoring the judgers and advertisers who tout fitness, wellness routines, or productivity in general as expressions of moral vigor. Knowing that movement is a cause of wellbeing doesn’t help me when the fatigue in my body is deadening or even nauseating, and it doesn’t help when someone’s emotional experience is so habituated to guilt or shame that their associations with exercise are immediate dread, anticipation of failure, or resentment. Our culture also sells movement as the golden ticket to being/becoming HOT. We associate exercise with the continual struggle to look a certain way, and this hijacks, at worst, and complicates, at best, our relationship with movement itself.

Sidenote: do check out the #bodyneutrality and #weightneutrality movements if this reflection on image and exercise speaks to you.

To counteract all these very serious and genuinely soul-sucking associations with physical movement, the second practice I offer today is to play with the emotional quality of your music! Whether your rhythm at this time is small, medium or big, (whether you’re tapping your fingers or have gone full STOMP on us) notice the emotional tone of the song you chose, and ham it up a bit. I mean exaggerate it with your facial expressions and your body. “Pretend” it. Goof and spoof on the mood. This is a quarantivity to get the juice flowing, to carry you into your day. Defiant, cheesy, cheeky, dramatic- what’s the emotional tone? Is it fun to do such a thing? Would you prefer another flavor?

Next level: do Practice I and II at the same time. See how goofing on the emotion plays off the rhythmic movements of the body, and vice versa. Make it a production! Live from bed.

By playing, we practice expressing emotions (any emotion!) without shame. Toxic shame is a whole topic, but suffice it to say that carrying the weight of your experiences in isolation, as shame is designed to facilitate, is unjust. By embodying universal emotional experiences in a silly way (not just for and with the kids in our lives, but for us!) we create some space between ourselves and the emotions that claim an inequitable stake. We bear witness and control the commentary. Yay for ethical, safe, non-harming drama!

So this momentum is based in rhythm, which you might notice can lead to some kind flow. Uncle Google tells me that one of the definitions of flow is “the action or fact of moving along in a steady, continuous stream.”

That’s nice, but in the lives of folks who deal with freeze, flow is clearly punctuated- it’s there and then it’s not, and then it’s there again, we hope. Where your flow is headed, I can’t say, but I am inclined to mention that this rhythm and flow may very well free up some good energy- energy required to live, and live well.

When you ask a struggling nervous system to operate at a higher level of energy, it is only fair to add some oomph, or some input, from without. I do this with my music’s VOLUME and specific genres (lots of hip hop.) I also listen to speakers, teachers and mentors whose messages are centered around self-acceptance, and emotions as positive phenomena.

Just a little caveat here, that playing, if you are alone (or feel alone), can bring up feelings of loneliness. 😞 I feel this grief with you. Remember when we used to play by ourselves as children? It may not have been ideal, in fact it probably wasn’t. But we did it! I recommend taking little opportunities to play in our own private worlds, just like we did then. And, if you have them, you can certainly invite your pets or roommates or partner/s or Zoom heads to the party. Let them question if quarantine has finally taken you. Do your STOMP dance around the kitchen for an indeterminate amount of time.

There are those who see healing or personal growth as a kind of “re-parenting” process. How is it fair to ask ourselves to “grow up” or “act grown” all the time when we adults are so robbed of playtime? Trauma means less play. It is unfair. Just thinking about it makes me want to STOMP!

In conclusion, a quick list of activities that may add some oomph:

  • Music!
  • Getting the legit, sustained rest you need
  • Any kind of creative activity
  • Chores you don’t hate, tidying
  • Self-Compassion practice
  • Dressing in your nice/uplifted clothes, or an outfit that makes you feel “like yourself”
  • Inspirational podcasts
  • Nature walks or wanderings
  • Doing something positive for yourself or someone else that you’re a little nervous about
  • Daydreaming about beauty

To all the fledgling movers and shakers, I acknowledge you, and cheer you on!

Lots of love,

Maggie

Written by

Somatics, trauma-safe mindfulness, feminism, justice, Buddhist wisdom, bodywork, Empowerment Self-Defense www.maggietruelove.com

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