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  • Writer's pictureEve da Silva Msc, PgDip

The Art of Rest: Healing Nature's Way

How we recover from trauma and learn to relax fully

As I sit to write this post I am thinking about how best to encourage you to practice rest. I wonder what brought you here? Do you find it difficult to relax, especially when all your instincts are telling you need to? You aren't alone in this. I think it is something we can all be affected by, and speaking from personal experience, it is something that can make a person feel trapped and exhausted.

Part of the difficulty lies in the reality of the various commitments and demands placed on us by our roles at work, home and in society in general. I am not here to write that it's always easy to rest. I am here to write about how to learn to trust your judgement as to when enough is enough and when it is time to conserve your energy. The ability to rest is inbuilt biologically.

Rest is a crucial component of our whole body mind system so if you’ve experienced high levels of stress, the over activation of your threat system through single incident or persistent trauma and adversity it can make rest can feel wrong or even dangerous.

In therapy, learning to relax is a crucial part of teaching your body and mind that it is safe and indeed resourceful to relax and allow yourself to recover.

We don't rely on talking about rest, or reading about rest to teach rest. Rest has to be learned experientially. This might sound simple and obvious but it's worth laying it out simply because the chances are that if you're reading this you might be someone (like me) who likes to learn things intellectually. Understanding something on an intellectual level is all good and well but it can also get in the way if we don't learn to reconnect with our bodies.

We need to learn to feel safe in our own bodies to trust our own judgement: learning what the physical sensations, emotions and urges mean helps us to better understand our needs.

The first time I remember consciously deciding to do a guided relaxation for my own wellbeing was when I worked as a support worker for veterans recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Part of my role back then was to help run a relaxation group. If you find the process of learning to relax through guided relaxation awkward and exposing, that's probably a good sign that you're taking the right steps to help your body learn to relax. In the relaxation group I used to run the sense of discomfort at the beginning of the group was at times palpable. The discomfort didn't come from the sense that this was a threat to manliness, or pride, it came from the sense that this was a new and threatening experience: being willing to drop hypervigilance for a brief time and let go of the constant sense of current threat. I learned so much about the process of relaxation in that group. Noting how in myself and the experiences of my group members that no one has the exact same experience. That it's an incremental journey to learn to relax, not a sprint to a finish line of zen and enlightenment.

Soothing Rhythm breathing is a practice that is foundational to Compassionate Mind training. This is a technique I learned when treating clients for PTSD related to both single incident and complex traumas. My amazing teacher from taught me the theories that help explain why it can feel so threatening to feel relaxed if we have experienced traumas.

The first theory that stuck with me is a simple one, from the world of behavioural psychology: conditioning. The shorthand version of this is that we tend to build associations between experiences, so for example, if you had some extremely-not-safe experiences at a time when you would have or should have felt relaxed then you may well associate feeling relaxed with not being safe. If that resonates with you, let me just say right now that I am truly sorry. This should never have happened and NOTHING you could have done would have meant you deserved to not feel safe.

The second theory that stuck with me describes that relaxing is interrupted by strong negative thoughts or judgements. These thoughts are typically self-critical in nature and align with strong beliefs about the world, the self and other people. Relaxing can trigger this self criticism on overdrive, and the thoughts themselves activate the threat system, interrupting the body's natural ability to regulate.

We can bypass the negative thoughts we have about relaxing and about ourselves by focusing our attention on the core physical practices involved with the self regulatory physiology. This is why we learn to relax the muscles and slow the breath.

Yoga Nidra is a bit of a different practice to the aforementioned ones, not because it doesn't involve the same systems (it does) but because 1) I learned it as a yoga teacher rather than as a therapist and 2) because it brings in an additional key ingredient: imagination. Now, not everyone can picture images in their minds, so if you are thinking of giving Yoga Nidra a go don't be put off by the prompted imagery, you can use your imagination in your own way to give meaning to the prompts. Yoga Nidra translates to yogic sleep and it is purported by yogis to give you access to the liminal space of your consciousness between asleep and awake. To me one of the powerful things about yoga nidra is that the practice begins with an opportunity to use the yoga practice of savasana to deeply relax the body, before beginning to journey through imagery, in the mind. I find it to be a powerful practice for safe space imagery and would use it specifically for this purpose for myself and with clients. I do recommend approaching yoga nidra with caution however as it is possible that unwanted intrusive thoughts, memories or images may occur. I say this not to put you off or to encourage you to avoid such things (that is perhaps a post for another day but avoidance makes things worse generally) but because I do think if you are considering this particular practice you may want to do so in a way that feels very emotionally safe.

I hope you have found this interesting... and perhaps it has even made you feel hopeful that you will be able to learn how to trust your body's ability to rest and recover. If you have found it useful, do let me know, I love to hear from readers to know if it is helpful to read my writing.

Here's wishing you a restful, relaxing, calming moment in your day.

- Eve x

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