For two years I’ve been training in Somatic Experiencing, a therapy for helping people heal from trauma, and it’s become clear that it’s an excellent way to help performers manage their nerves. But why does it work?
It all starts with the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is in charge of everything we do, and its main goal is to ensure our survival. A healthy, well-regulated ANS allows us to ride the wave of life, staying present in the here and now and dealing with challenges as they arise by engaging the fight-flight-or-freeze response as needed. That gives us energy to run, or defend ourselves, or as a last resort to go into a numbed-out energy-conservation mode until we’re safe again. Performing is a high-stakes, challenging experience, and it’s totally appropriate for our sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight part) to kick in to help us get the job done. I bet you know the feeling: higher heart rate, faster breathing, maybe some shaking in the knees or tingling in the arms or a feeling of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. If we’re among the very fortunate few who have never experienced anything overwhelming or traumatic, our systems in fight-or-flight will STILL be challenged to manage breathing in a way that’s helpful for singing.
Unfortunately, the majority of us have experienced overwhelming events in our lives, and our nervous systems may be dysregulated so that an objectively small stimulus might trigger an inappropriately strong response from the ANS. Our nervous systems operate unconsciously to ensure our survival, and they choose the strategy that is likely to be the most successful; if fighting or fleeing aren’t likely to work, the ANS will go into a freeze response. The freeze response features a slow heart rate, significantly slowed breathing, inability to perceive bodily sensation, heaviness or stuckness in the limbs, and a blank facial expression. In addition, the limbic brain takes over and the pre-frontal cortex, the home of our wonderful human thinking ability and associated creativity, goes offline. A performer in freeze state hasn’t got many options; they’re not even really ‘there’.
This is where Somatic Experiencing becomes incredibly helpful. By helping the body to complete any old self-protection responses, we increase nervous system regulation and our responses to stimulation become right-sized. We build the capacity to tolerate the sensations of fight-or-flight without going into freeze. We befriend the sensations of healthy aggression and soft vulnerability to expand our range of experience. We hone our awareness of bodily sensations, the building blocks of all emotional expression. We are able to stay present with ourselves and stay in relationship with each other. We become curious and playful, embodied and empowered.