by Janet Potts, PT BCST
Licensed Physical Therapist
Certified Master Teacher of Tao Academy
Certified Master Teacher and physical therapist Janet Potts shares self-regulation techniques that can affect the body’s physiological responses to stress and overwhelm. These exercises develop the ability to quickly recognize and intentionally respond to activating experiences and physiologically move from a state of fight-or-flight and overwhelm to a greater state of calm. Soul mind body practices are also shared to assist in going deeper into the development of a daily grounding practice and to further promote our ability to remain balanced during the intense experience.
Abstract: It has been said that presence heals. In a world with growing challenges, it will become increasingly important to be the grounding rods for ourselves and others. This article demonstrates the importance of, and how to directly access, the Autonomic Nervous System, the survival system, and how to develop fluidity and resilience in this aspect of our physiology.
The author shares self-regulation techniques that can affect the body’s physiological responses to stress and overwhelm. These exercises develop the ability to quickly recognize and intentionally respond to activating experiences and physiologically move from a state of fight-or-flight and overwhelm to a greater state of calm. Soul mind body practices are also shared to assist in going deeper into the development of a daily grounding practice and to further promote our ability to remain balanced during intense experience.
Our access and exposure to world news has increased dramatically.
The speed with which we receive negative world news has sped up with the development of the internet and other high-speed forms of communication.
The content and intensity of what is being delivered on a daily basis is impacting our mind, emotions, and physiology, not to mention our souls. More people are in more frequent and amplified states of fear and anxiety, as well as anger and sadness. In addition, many people are frequently functioning in a state of multi- tasking or overwhelm. These factors and more can move our experience from a place of stress to a state of ongoing fight-or-flight (activation) or overwhelm. This article will focus on how we can ground ourselves when fielding and managing these elevated forms of stress.
Physiological distinctions can be made between stress, fight-or-flight, overwhelm, freeze, and trauma. All of these conditions are mediated in our bodies by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is both a hardwired and biochemically mediated system. Autonomic means automatic. It is our survival system.
Although stress is often used in vernacular speech with many definitions, for our purposes, we can define stress as ANS arousal in a non-fixed or temporary state. Examples include stress about our pet’s health, the state of our job, deadlines, finances, and relationships. Fight-or-flight or activation is a heightened stress response accompanied by hyper-arousal in the ANS.
In response to a threat, the three automatic options on the menu are fight, flight, or freeze. When fight or flight is ineffective, freeze can manifest. ANS freeze is the numb, “deer in headlights” state. Overwhelm, the too much, too fast of inundation, can drive our ANS into a relative state of freeze.
Trauma results from any event that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope.i The occurrence of trauma can be as a single overwhelming event (shock trauma), or the result of repetitive patterns of maltreatment—a series of neglect, cruelty, or abuse (developmental trauma).
When our ANS remains in a fight or flight state or a state of freeze for extended periods of time, our ANS is considered to be dysregulated. The system has lost its resilience.
The ANS helps us to understand the body’s physiological responses to stress and trauma, its impact on our health, and its effect on our ability to remain grounded during intense experience.
Rather than going deeper into an anatomical description of the ANS, we will use our experience to connect with and understand this system. Please see Peter Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger for more specifics about the ANS.2
Many of us have one or two favorite spots where we can absorb the beautiful vibrations of nature. Being in nature is a great way to nourish your soul, heart, mind, and body. The sun, flowers, trees, rivers, oceans, mountains, and more radiate their loving essence simply and purely, putting us in touch with the unconditional service of nature. Being in nature can bring us a sense of peace and help us connect with the universal laws, and reminds us of our oneness with everyone and everything.
Allow yourself some dedicated time to be with nature mindfully to absorb the greatest love that is present there. Take time to appreciate nature. Connect with the trees, waters, lands, and more. Chant the mantra, Greatest Love, to send your greatest love to all of nature. Notice how it feels to be the vessel of greatest love.
Each of the three physiological states of the ANS (fight, flight, or freeze) has a different “feeling” and physiology in the body. For example, many of us are familiar with the elevated heart rate, secretion of adrenalin, and dry mouth that accompany fight-or-flight.
To access this system and speak to it, we need to connect to and notice body sensation in the present moment. It is the language of the ANS. The language of body sensation is the language of the ANS. Body sensations are described by words such as tense, constricted, relaxed, pulsing, vibrating, buzzing, quivering, expansive, numb, etc.
Consequences of Autonomic Nervous System Dysregulation
“At least 80% of all conditions that people see doctors for revolve around the autonomic nervous system.”
James Jealous, D.O.8
- Anxiety, fear, irritability, anger, panic
- Feeling disconnected, disoriented, flat
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Physical pain, decreased digestive function, compromised immune system
- Feeling revved up, easily startled, or hyper-vigilance
- Inability to sleep, relax or think clearly
- Racing thoughts
- Weight gain
- Repeated accidents
Do you recognize yourself here? How many of these symptoms do you have?
Take a moment now to bring your awareness to your body, to the sensation in your body. Begin to notice what sensation is present. Take your time. You are sensing in the body, its physiology. Where in your body are you noticing sensation? What are the qualities of that sensation? Notice. What is the best word to describe that sensation? Stay present with it. It is important to notice the sensation just as a sensation without interpreting or judging it. What happens as you continue to notice the sensations? Do they change?
While there are a multitude of potential body sensations, let’s see if there are any that would indicate the three ANS states mentioned above. Is there a feeling of calm? Calm has a relaxed, alert feeling, with aliveness and a sense of fluidity. Agitation can be a hallmark of the fight-or-flight state that may be accompanied by an anxiousness, vigilance, and muscle tension. The felt sense of fight or flight is familiar to many of us.
Freeze is a biological mechanism of safety and our ANS chooses it for us. The felt sense of freeze can be noticed by a flatness, numbness, a felt sense of immobility, scattered thinking, and emotional dullness.
What I notice in my clinical practice is that many clients mistake the felt sense of calm with that of freeze in the ANS. The “deer in headlights” state is difficult for most to distinguish. There is always more activation under a freeze and you may be noticing the activation as well.
For the states of fight, flight, or freeze, our healing intention is to return to a regulated state of calm, peacefulness, and groundedness. We will now do an exercise seeking to purposefully physiologically shift our ANS from a relative state of activation or freeze to a state of calm.
The Body Low Slow Loop Exercise 3
Begin by noticing an area of sensation in the body that has muscle tension or the felt sense of agitation. Let’s use neck tension as an example. If you have tension in your neck, begin to notice the body sensation of it. Notice it just as a sensation. It is important not to interpret the sensation (e.g., that is my C3 vertebra). If you have difficulty doing this, begin with the Working with Overwhelm exercise that follows and return to this exercise.
Continue to notice. Go slowly. As you “feel” the sensation, begin to notice if the sensation is more noticeable on the left or the right. Is it more to the surface or deep? Does it have a moving quality or a still quality? Now choose an area lower in the body. For example, your feet. Begin to simply notice sensation there. Continue to go slowly and repeat the three questions: Left or right? Surface or deep? Moving or still?
Now return to the upper area of the body you started with. Ask yourself, is the original sensation the same or different? Usually it will be less intense, a different shape, or have moved. Begin to notice the sensation again, as it is in this moment. Repeat the above loop (noticing the sensations, asking the questions) one more time. Be sure to go slowly. It is important to do the loop again to create a soothing response in your body. Begin to notice if your breath slows down, if you take a deeper breath, or notice any settling. Allow your cells to register and remember this felt sense. Give it some time.
As you can see, it takes just a few minutes of attention to create a physiological relaxation response in your body. But, it must be done intentionally. Our survival system needs to be able to engage at a moment’s notice. But for grounding, our attention is needed. We must practice it. Practice this exercise regularly until you can easily recognize the felt sense of settling and grounding in your body.
Working with Overwhelm
Overwhelm can be defined as too much, too fast. Therefore, it is important to separate out the elements creating overwhelm into workable parts. Often, using this technique can move us from relative immobilization to greater action.
- Go slowly. It is important to maintain contact with body sensation as you go through these steps.
- Break down each of the major categories of overwhelm into manageable components (e.g., my mother is in the hospital, my kids are sick, my husband lost his job).
- While tracking the felt sense in the body, distance all components. Put them as far away as needed to create a relief response. It is best to put them in separate locations. The distance can be the corners of the room, or as far away as the moon or another planet, depending on the degree it is perceived as a threat by the ANS.
- Select one component of experience you are going to work with in this moment and bring it back into the room. Select a component that is not the most overwhelming (e.g., my mother is in the hospital).
- Come up with a workable plan to resolve it until there is a relative sense of relief.
- The plan does not have to be rock solid for the ANS to regulate. Feel the resulting felt sense of settling in your body. Now “distance” this component. “File it away” again (e.g., my sister will visit my mother in the hospital).
- Bring the next component in and repeat the above steps.
- Write down 3–5 manageable, measurable action steps.
There are five elements of experience: body sensation, emotion, thought, behavior, and image. If any one of these is strong enough, they can unground us and make it difficult to notice sensation in our bodies without other elements. In the Body Low Slow Loop exercise above, sensation was noticed just as sensation, without the other elements. When we have strong emotions, busy thinking, or a disturbing image, we may need to also distance these dysregulating elements as in the steps above before doing the Body Low Slow Loop Exercise.
We want to be able to recognize and respond to changes in our ANS states and develop fluidity and resilience in the ANS. What follows is some of my own experience with developing the ability to ground myself.
In 2002, both of my parents died within three months of each other. A short time afterword, I entered into a body-centered therapy. I discovered I was not fully living in my own body. I was not in full contact (or maybe even partial contact) with my emotions and body sensations. I was not grounded in my body and was living in a state of disconnection from my body due to a history of trauma that was unconscious to me. Having been a physical therapist for many years and an athlete, this came as a surprise to me. As a result of this therapy, I felt like I had been given the gift of living in a more consistent state of presence and groundedness in my body.
It was this body-centered therapy that first taught me to track sensation in my body. As a result, tracking my ANS has become an ongoing, habituated, daily practice. At some level, in the background of my awareness, I am continually sensing my ANS. When I am aware of a state of activation or freeze, I intervene and pendulate my ANS back to a state of calm. I invite you to learn this language, cultivate inner sensing, and become well versed in it.
Even though our ANS is a fundamental, universal survival system, we as humans have generally not understood how to access this system directly, nor recognized the value of an ongoing practice of self-regulation and grounding. We are so practiced in perceiving from our heads, that cultivating the skill of grounding in the body may need to be a conscious pursuit. As with most pursuits, it does get easier with practice.
It is important to understand that we all disconnect from our bodies to one degree or another, and there is a continuum or relative states of disconnection. We all go through cycles of relative states of groundedness and embodiment. Relative states of disconnection can be recognized, articulated, and brought to consciousness.
Given the times we are in and the tasks before us as practitioners, I recommend that you consider developing a daily grounding practice and the ability to communicate this skill to others. Several practices that directly affect our capacity for grounding can be found in the books by Dr. and Master Zhi Gang Sha. It is suggested that the following practices be used daily. These ancient wisdom practices are key practices, and now is the time to do them daily.
Another powerful practice to support grounding is the Hei Heng Hong Ha practice, which can be found in Soul Healing Miracles. Practice now and receive the benefits from applying the Four Power Techniques.
Body Power. Sit straight with both feet flat on the floor. Place both palms on your lower abdomen.
Soul Power. Connect by saying:
Dear the sacred mantra, Hei Heng Hong Ha (pronounced hay hung hōhng hah), Please ground me.
I am so grateful.
Mind Power. Visualize brilliant golden light radiating in your lower abdomen.
Sound Power. Repeat this high frequency and vibration sacred mantra, alternating silently and aloud for 10 minutes or more.
Hei Heng Hong Ha (pronounced hay hung hōhng hah)
Hei Heng Hong Ha
Hei Heng Hong Ha
Hei Heng Hong Ha …
Respectively, these words stimulate the first, second, and third soul houses (energy chakras) and the lower abdomen, zhong (pronounced jawng) or core of the body.
The longer you chant or repeat the mantra, the better results you could experience.
When you finish, take a moment to maintain your awareness in your lower abdomen. Connect to the felt sense of grounding in your body. Repeat this practice anytime you feel the need to ground. See Soul Healing Miracles5 pages 150–161 and figure 15 (the Source Ling Guang Calligraphy Hei Heng Hong Ha) for more ways to amplify your practice.
The very act of simply putting your attention on your lower abdomen during the practice while noticing the sensation and the light from these powerful practices can also bring your ANS to a greater state of calm.
A consideration is to add to the request for your ANS to move to a regulated state of calm from activation, freeze, or overwhelm, and to add Body Soul Orders, vii a Tao Hands blessing for your ANS, or a Tao Blessing System for your ANS.
With attention, awareness, practice, and education, blockages can be transformed that affect our ANS regulation and impede an ongoing state of groundedness.
- Heller, Diane Poole and Laurence S. (2001) Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide to Auto Accident Trauma & Recovery. Berkeley, California. North Atlantic Books.
- Levine, Peter A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, California. North Atlantic Books.
- Anon, (2012). [online] Available at: https:// www.energyschool.com/resources/podcasts/ bodylowslowloop
- Sha, Zhi Gang. (2006). Soul Mind Body Medicine: A Complete Soul Healing System for Optimum Health and Vitality. Novato, California.: New World Library.
- Sha, Zhi Gang. (2013). Soul Healing Miracles: Ancient and New Sacred Wisdom, Knowledge, and Practical Techniques for Healing the Spiritual, Mental, Emotional, and Physical Bodies. Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books.
- Sha, Zhi Gang, & Xiu, R. (2014). Soul Mind Body Science System: Grand Unification Theory and Practice for Healing, Rejuvenation, Longevity, and Immortality. Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books.
- Sha, Zhi Gang. (2009). The Power of Soul: The Way to Heal, Rejuvenate, Transform, and Enlighten All Life. New York: Atria Books.
- Chitty, J. (n.d.). [online] Somaticexperiencing.dk. Available at: https://somaticexperiencing. dk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Chitty-Triune- ANS-Applications.pdf
About the Author
Janet Potts, PT BCST
Licensed Physical Therapist
Certified Master Teacher of Tao Academy
Janet Potts, PT, BCST is a Certified Master Teacher of Tao Academy founded by Dr. and Master Zhi Gang Sha. Janet has been a physical therapist for 36 years and has a private practice in Fort Collins, Colorado specializing in chronic pain. In addition to her unique bodywork techniques and perceptual skills, she is a Somatic Experiencing practitioner. With a devotion to relieving the suffering of others, Janet offers sacred wisdom teachings, blessings, and personal consultations through her soul-focused services at Sacred Pearl Services, LLC. For more information about ANS, go to janetpottspt.com/services/somatic experiencing.