Have you ever wondered how wild animals—who live in a far more physically dangerous world than we do—can mate, eat, and raise their young while looking so darn cute all the time in spite of a total lack of beauty products?—I mean, mental health care?
I recently had the good luck to attend some classes led by Peter Levine, one of the founding fathers of the field (can you say “founding fathers of the field” ten times quickly?) of truamatology. Dr. Levine has a brilliant insight into an important difference between humans and all other animals when it comes to trauma: animals use their bodies—their somatic (physical) sensations to inform their behavior as well as recover from a trauma.
To understand this concept, imagine for a moment you are an elegant little gazelle bounding through the tundra. Your highly sensitive nose catches the scent of a lion and on your left a lion-shaped shadow appears. You have two choices and you must make one immediately or you will certainly die, instead of possibly die. One is to run away; In order to outrun the lion there must be a decent amount of distance between you and her (female lions work much harder than the males, so my sexist assumption is intentional here). Your other option is to play dead. Being an instinctual creature, you know lions like a good fresh meal and are less interested in leftovers. You keel over and grow stiff. The lion comes over to sniff you (thinking to herself “didn’t I just see this one alive a moment ago? Must be early Alzheimer’s.”), then she stalks away in hopes of a live kill.
Then what happens? Do you just jump up and frolic on your merry way as if you had nary a care in the world? No! You stay paralyzed for a while, then you slowly get up and you shake it off! This shaking, or re-engagement of your muscles tells your body and your brain that the threat is over.
Why does that matter? Shaking is both physically as well as neurologically healthy because it acts as an exclamation point to the end of an unpleasant activity. This is important because Acute Stress Response and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder set in when the brain doesn’t know that the threatening, overwhelming experience is over.
By taking a page out of the gazelle behavior manual, shaking our entire body is something we humans could do to re-orient ourselves after a negative experience. And it’s natural, free, and has no side effects, other than helping you feel better fast!
Sound too weird to you? It’s not really all that weird. Have you heard a coach tell an athlete who was injured to “shake it off?” Have you ever met someone who totally creeped you out and found yourself wanting to shake out your arms and hands after they left?
Deep in the recesses of our human brain lies the instinctual wisdom that came along as we evolved from Neanderthal to modern human (okay I know some of you are saying “My boss is still a Neanderthal!). The problem is that in today’s world, skills like shifting gears while changing lanes while talking on a cell phone get far more practice time than our old protective friend, instinct. As a result we often fail to take advantage of our instincts and ignore them along with ignoring our body until a serious problem arises.
So next time you have a really unpleasant experience, before you jump into the next to-do item, take a moment afterwards to shake. As I tackle my taxes this week, I know I’ll be taking a lot of shake-breaks.