The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade effectively ends 50 years of constitutional protection of the right to an abortion.
The criminalization of abortion is suddenly an imminent reality for millions of people in states across the country.
Without the freedom to seek out legal abortions, people could be forced to endure undesired — even unsafe — pregnancies.
This has measurable repercussions for the health and well-being of pregnant people and children.
Many are experiencing grief, sadness, anger, and pain in the wake of the ruling as they mourn the loss of safe, legal bodily autonomy.
Still, in the midst of difficult emotions, there are ways to feel OK again.
According to somatic healing experts, losing what many believe to be a basic human right can result in the body reacting with defense mechanisms — from the fight or flight response to shutting down or dissociating.
These protective mechanisms are meant to keep you safe, but they can also prevent you from living your life.
Somatic practices provide a safe avenue for guiding the body gently out of its defense mechanisms while honoring the validity of powerful emotions, providing a healthy way to feel, process, and heal.
Deborah Bagg is a yoga teacher and licensed mental health counselor who specializes in somatic psychotherapy.
“This ruling directly impacts our sense of safety in the world, which is a somatic experience,” she says. “When we don’t feel safe and protected — in our country, in our homes, in our bodies — the body will respond with various forms of defense.”
This somatic defense, she says, can take many forms in the body.
“Our heart rate is impacted, our stress hormones rise, we can feel dissociated or restless and anxious,” she says. “All these are totally normal and natural responses to trauma.”
This response is heightened by the fact that millions of people around the country are experiencing this trauma collectively.
Unlike individual trauma, collective trauma can spread from person to person within a community.
“The ruling of Roe v. Wade taps into what Jung would call both the personal and collective consciousness,” Bagg says. “As human beings, we’re bound by our connectivity and belonging to the human race, which means we are one nervous system responding and reacting to each other. One affects the one affects the many.”
This means that we can’t heal in a vacuum. Everyone’s healing is a community affair.
“As human beings, we’re bound by our connectivity and belonging to the human race, which means we are one nervous system responding and reacting to each other. One affects the one affects the many.”
Millions are fighting to regain their right to make decisions about their own bodies. However, abortion bans are now a reality in many states.
In the wake of the overturn, it’s important to find methods to soothe the mind and body in response to the collective trauma of this new reality.
“Somatically speaking, times like this require a deep state of grounding and physical embodiment of safety in order to pass through complete chaos,” suggests Michelle Shlafman, a licensed professional counselor at Perspectives Center for Holistic Therapy.
She describes the varied elements that somatic healing can involve, including:
- interoceptive awareness, or awareness of the internal feedback your body sends your brain about how it feels
- physical movement
“Somatic experiencing therapy can help support the body’s nervous system, even when the world around doesn’t feel safe to exist in,” Shlafman says.
Bagg points to the importance of community and working together to find modalities for releasing stress, tension, and grief.
“It’s essential that during this time, we reach for each other,” says Bagg. “This can be through the form of dancing, yoga, breathwork, and more.”
As a somatic psychotherapist, Bagg offers sessions that combine vocalizing pain and freeing the body through movement.
Pain, she explains, can become trapped in the physical body. Movement can help to let it go.
“I just led a somatic practice online to help my community process grief through sound, breath, and movement,” she says. “This allows the tears to flow and [enables us] to access more mobilization through our whole body system.”
By understanding what our bodies really need in times of both peace and trauma, we can better care for ourselves.
“Do you need to move faster, punch something, or scream?” asks Bagg. “Or do you need to be held and weep, lay on the ground, and breathe?”
“Our body is both the tool and the medicine to create space for all of our feelings,” she says. “The more we listen to what our body is needing, the greater a friend our bodies can be in times of crisis.”
Interested in trying somatic healing to work through grief, trauma, and fear?
The exercises below are safe, gentle ways to begin bringing the body into a state of equilibrium.
If you’re storing emotions in the body rather than releasing them, it can lead to a buildup of stress and tension. By physicalizing emotions in the body, you can begin to let them go.
“This technique is extremely effective in helping us make space and soften up to difficult emotions so that we’re no longer struggling to control something that isn’t in our control,” says Lev.
Lev shares her steps for this practice:
- Notice where in your body you feel the emotion most intensely. Is it in your chest? Your throat? Your heart? Your lower belly?
- Begin taking slow, full breaths and focusing your attention on this area.
- Begin exploring your subjective experience of the sensation. Don’t worry about it “making sense.” What shape is the emotion? What size is it? What color is it? Does it have any movement? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions.
- See if you can track every part of the sensation and stay with it from moment to moment. Get curious about it like an investigator. Does this sensation have a texture? A color? Is the shape changing? Is the intensity shifting?
- After you’ve labeled and validated your feelings, send yourself loving kindness. You can place a hand on your heart and gently rub to add a comforting physical element to the practice.
- Then ask yourself what you’d most want to hear from a loved one. This could be your mother, father, partner, or best friend. Send that message to yourself. You can even say it out loud.
Shake it out
After visualizing and placing your emotions within the body, you can try to physically shake them out.
“Shaking out stress is a simple somatic technique to allow the body to release whatever nervous energy or tension it may be feeling,” Shlafman says.
- To practice, begin by shaking the palms of the hands.
- Gradually, begin shaking the arms.
- Add in the neck and head. Then shimmy the sides of the body and add in the legs until your whole body is shaking.
“This usually looks like a funny dance,” says Shlafman. “Practice is encouraged for individuals who feel shaky in the nervous system.”
Shaking is said to discharge tension from the body, leading to a state of equilibrium. Plus, it may help you get in a laugh or two.
Exercises to stimulate the vagus nerve
“Stimulating the vagus nerve helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce stress,” says Lev.
There are various ways you can stimulate this nerve, including:
- cold water immersion
“Grounding allows the body to feel deeply connected and rooted to the earth,” says Shlafman.
- To practice, imagine your feet pressing downward, with tree roots growing and extending into the ground.
- Feel yourself anchored into the earth. Become aware of the sensations that arise from actively grounding.
- Once this experience feels vivid, you can add a helpful affirmation like, ‘I am anchored to the earth and am fully supported.’”
“Breathwork is a beautiful technique that allows the nervous system to release stuck patterns through prana, our life force energy,” explains Shlafman.
There are countless ways to practice, but the three below are great places to start.
Begin by simply tuning into the breath and noticing it. Allow the awareness to rest on the inhalation and exhalation.
Notice its qualities without trying to change them. Is the breath warm, quick, high in the chest?
Simply repeat this practice until you feel calm.
You can also try the 4-7-8 breathing method.
To do so, simply breath in for a count of 4, hold for 7, breath out for 8, and repeat.
Lev also recommends diaphragmatic or deep breathing.
- To practice, breathe in for four counts and exhale for five.
- Place one hand on your heart and one on your belly.
- Feel the belly rising and falling as you breathe. Let the belly expand on the inhale and relax on the exhale.
- Repeat for 10 or more rounds.
Practicing these somatic healing techniques can be a wonderful way to release emotions, ground yourself, and take back control of your emotional response to events in the world.
While most of these practices are safe to try on your own, it’s always a good idea to visit a licensed practitioner before trying therapeutic exercises for the first time.
Somatic practices may bring up strong emotions, especially in individuals with a history of trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional before trying any somatic healing techniques for the first time to ensure they’re safe for you.
While recognizing when we need support for grief and fear is important, another perspective notes that these emotions can be catalysts for change.
“We talk a lot about the parasympathetic nervous system and the importance of regulating our nervous system,” says Avigail Lev, director and owner at Bay Area CBT Center. “The problem is that focusing on the parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t consider the importance of our sympathetic nervous system.”
In other words, Lev believes it’s important to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to do its work of either fighting, freezing, or running away.
“Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response and moves us into action,” she says.
In the case of Roe v. Wade, action may be what’s needed.
“Most people are not anxious because they have a parasympathetic nervous system problem but because they’re not completing the tasks that need to be done,” she says. “Their sympathetic nervous system is trying to move them into action, but instead they interpret it as anxiety and want to relax.”
Right now, Lev says, feelings of fear and anxiety are there for a reason. Fear and anxiety can be a force for change.
“This fear, if we don’t allow it to overwhelm us, will move us toward taking actions that matter and that protect our collective,” she says. “This is not the time to relax or calm down. It’s the time to get angry, stand up, and fight to get our rights back.”
“This fear, if we don’t allow it to overwhelm us, will move us toward taking actions that matter … This is not the time to relax or calm down. It’s the time to get angry, stand up, and fight to get our rights back.”
Having agency in your own body is an important human right.
Though lawmakers may not agree, you may be able to find a sense of safety in the body through somatic practices.
At the same time that you seek to soothe the body and process your emotions, remember that your anger and even your fear can be potent energy for enacting change.
Meg is a freelance journalist and features writer who covers culture, entertainment, lifestyle and health. Her writing has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Shondaland, Healinggeeks, HelloGiggles, Reader’s Digest, Apartment Therapy, and more. T: @wordsbyMeg W: megwalters.co.uk
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