Posture (June Project, Day 6)

And today, the somatic nervous system (SomNS) in brief, again with a focus on psychotherapist Babette Rothschild's writing in order to understand the connections between trauma and exercise. Think of this as the notes I take for myself--an amateur study of one woman's life's work. There's so much more to these concepts than I can flesh out here, but I want to try to grasp the scope of the theories before diving into the part I'm interested in most. (See "june project" label for previous entries.)

"The autonomic nervous system... directs blood flow away from viscera and skin to the muscles for the duration of fight, flight, and freezing responses. The somatic nervous system directs the musculature to carry out that response." page 53 of The Body Remembers.

Rothschild points out that the SomNS operates via neural impulses, making any contraction of muscle an active state. "Relaxation, usually thought of as an active process, 'Hey, just relax,' is actually a passive state." (page 51)

And isn't nothing always the hardest to do? I've always pitied people going cold turkey on cigarettes or substances, because they have no work to be done--rather, the absence of a thing. Their goal is to not do something, with a sense of accomplishment coming from accomplishing nothing. Whew.

To jump, then, to another fascinating bit in her books,: the connection between the SomNS and what Rothschild calls "The mechanism by which traumatic events can be remembered implicitly through the encoding of posture and movement."

Posture. I've undertaken informal studies of this myself, of actors and homeless people acting. Why, if we can become someone else, do we not? Why not act more confident than we are? At least a smidgeon?

"Because it would be exhausting," said a friend of mine, an actor in NYC. But Rothschild has done some fascinating work in this area.

While laying out the idea that increased muscle strength helps clients with PTSD, she speculates that part of the success of this technique may include a protective mechanism. "More tone across your chest or back can help you to feel more protection--armor--between yourself and others," she writes in 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery.

She goes on to tell of a client who would suffer extreme stress at family events that involved a buffet table. The mere act of turning her back to the rest of the room caused such anxiety that she'd hardly eat.

Rothschild experimented: Could she try throwing those shoulders back and standing in a confident stance? This helped, but having her chest exposed didn't. How about shoulder blades together but shoulders curved forward, bracing her chest? It was a stiff and strange posture, both admitted, but it worked. She could make her way through family gatherings without anxiety, though still a bit stiff.

In an article called "Applying the Brakes," Rothschild recalls the phrase "weak in the knees," which speaks to an actual fear response. When a client of hers felt this condition come on, R had her press her feet into the floor. (Reading this, I'm kicking myself for not thinking of this technique for my 89-year-old client. Isometric exercises can be terribly effective, and I've had capable adults "push" the wall or against their own knees to create the same effect.) Once the client felt the strength in her knees, she calmed down. Following a state of hyperarousal due to a rush of stress hormones, her hippocampus could relax and function properly, allowing her to clear her head and make better use of the rest of the therapy session.

Again, I can't see why the average person in a state of stress can't try these posture techniques. I knew I had picked the right person to study when I read in Rothschild's introduction to 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery that her "professional goal is to become obsolete." In her work, Rothschild insists that her clients understand what helps them, so they can call on these tools when needed. I approach my clients in exactly the same way; education is as much a part of an hour with me as exercise. Make no mistake: they get a workout. But my goal is to have them reach a point when they no longer need me, or can break away for a time.

Always learning. Try the posture technique. See what happens, and let me know.


  1. Amy, can you help me understand what "isometric exercises" are, or what that means? my yoga instructor yesterday referred to some of our poses as isometric exercises, and coincidentally the class was very good for me, released a lot of tension I had stored in my body. But I'm still not sure what isometric means. Thanks, love your posts.

  2. Hi Lisa! Isometric muscle contractions refer to tension that doesn't change the length of the muscle. Picture a bodybuilder holding a flexed pose--the muscles are tense, but they're not moving. Same thing with pushing against a wall; you can work really hard at that, and it's strenuous, but the muscles aren't lengthening and shortening as they would be if you were pushing a bar overheard, for instance.

    I'm glad that the session helped you relieve some tension. I think that sometimes just becoming aware of where the tension lies helps dissipate it. And the deep breathing of yoga does wonders for that, as well.


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