In this month's guest interview I'm joined by my dear friend Marlene Zehnter, Stress Release Facilitator & Body Awareness Coach, who is an expert in regulating the nervous system and releasing stress. She explained how the nervous system works, how to ground ourselves when we're nervous or activated, TRE®, and much, much more. To watch/listen to the entire conversation, click here.
Q: Why is the nervous system something we should care about? Can you break it down for us in a simple way?
Absolutely. Firstly, you can picture the nervous system as a bubble that surrounds us and always scans our surroundings to make sure that we're safe. This happens completely naturally, without us having to do anything.
Whenever that bubble encounters a "threat" it will go into an activated state, which is called the sympathetic mode of the nervous system. When it doesn't find a threat, we relax and feel grounded, which is when then the nervous system is in the parasympathetic mode.
It's important to learn about the nervous system because nowadays a lot of diseases are rooted in issues with a hyperaroused nervous system, meaning a nervous system that is stuck in an activated state.
Diseases like headaches, digestive issues, sleep problems, and even chronic diseases can all be affected by the amount of stress we experience.
That's nothing new - we know that stress impacts our lives and our health. What I find so interesting is that we also make decisions based on where our nervous system is: what partner we're choosing, which job we're choosing... If our nervous system is stuck, that means it constantly perceives a threat. So our bodies will react in a protective way and our decisions will be taken in that way too.
The more we learn to ground and regulate our nervous system the more we feel alive and relaxed. And only when we're in that place of relaxation (in the parasympathetic mode), our bodies, minds, and hearts can heal. That's where we regenerate and replenish ourselves, and get our energy back.
Q: How do we recognize that our nervous system is activated/stuck?
The first thing is always self-awareness, so paying attention to what we're currently noticing in our bodies.
In TRE® we like to use the grounding scale (1-10) to assess where we are in this current moment. Without going too much into the scientific background, here is a very simplified version of the scale so that people can get a rough picture:
1 - 3: means we're in the parasympathetic, grounded state
4 - 6: the sympathetic state is active, meaning we experience worry, doubt, anxiety, fear, or on the other hand, irritation, frustration, anger
7: the point of overwhelm
8 - 10: our nervous system can't cope with the situation anymore. This is where we feel disconnected from the situation and where depression, daydreaming, and disassociation happen
Each of us has to tune in and check what signs go with the number we've chosen. For example, I would say that I'm a 3.5 at this moment. I notice that I'm in action because I'm a little out of breath, but other than that I feel present and focused, I feel the chair I'm sitting on... Those are all signs of being grounded and relaxed vs the activation of the breath, which is a hint of the sympathetic being active. Other signs of an activated nervous system are accelerated heart rate, cold or warm hands, body temperature changes, being constantly in our thoughts, lost in thinking or worrying...
If we're noticing that we're a bit higher, ideally we create the self-awareness so that we don't let our nervous system come to a 7 anymore.
Q: How can we ground ourselves when our nervous system starts to get activated?
When we notice that we're at a 5 or higher, we can use different grounding techniques. Some that work really well include the body:
tapping the body
tapping our neck
having a look around the room, moving our eyes, moving our neck, maybe even looking for objects that have our favorite color
conscious breathing (box breathing, pranayama)
Ultimately it's up to each of us to understand what grounds us and to grow our toolbox of grounding practices.
These are more day-to-day suggestions, but there are also other techniques, like TRE® that work with the nervous system when it's stuck and/or maintain the health and the grounding of the nervous system.
Q: You've mentioned TRE® a few times. Can you share a little about what it is and how it's connected with shaking and tremors?
TRE® (Tension & Trauma Release Exercises) is a technique that supports our body in reconnecting with its natural mechanism of releasing stress, built-up tension, and trauma from the body. We experience that through neurogenic tremors or shaking.
Neurogenic tremors are vibrations in the body that support the nervous system in relaxing. All of us probably had one or more experiences where the body was shaking, whether we were speaking in public and the paper we held in our hands was shaking or our voice was shaking....
The shaking actually isn't a sign of stress, but our innate mechanism to release stress. When we tremor, our nervous system is actually taking care of us.
TRE® is a series of exercises that were designed by dr. David Berceli. These exercises warm up the body in a specific way so that when you lie down your body starts shaking and activating that mechanism to release stress in a safe environment.
In this regulated and safe way, we can support our nervous system to switch off again. Generally in our society, we've unlearned how to switch off. We're constantly stuck either in the sympathetic or the higher levels of the nervous system and we just don't know anymore how to come to the ground.
Q: I love that. Animals have a natural way of releasing stress with shaking and so do kids, but as adults, we somehow forgot that. It's important to learn how to calm down because our sympathetic nervous system will get activated, it's the nature of the society we live in, so it's more about learning how to regulate it quicker.
Exactly. It's not about not being stressed. We're designed to be stressed. We're designed to experience our nervous system going into all stages. But we're also designed to come back down and that's what we've unlearned. What you mentioned is something we call resilience: to be quicker in catching the activation and coming back to the baseline.
Q: Going back to TRE® for a second, can everyone practice it, even people with resolved or unresolved trauma?
Anyone can do TRE®, even people with unresolved trauma. The only precaution is that they should be working with a provider that is also a therapist or has another trauma training that qualifies them to work with trauma. There are some more precautions but none of them are counter-indications, they simply need to be considered in the way of working with them.
Q: Something else I'm curious about. Many of us, including myself in the past, when we're activated or nervous, try to hide the nervousness or push those sensations away because it's uncomfortable. Why is that?
It's about the relationship we have with the tremor. Most of the time when we're tremoring (for example while we're speaking on stage) we would describe that relationship as 'unsafe' because we attach weakness to tremoring and in our society, we don't want to show our weakness or our vulnerability to the outside world.
I understand that that's how we perceive it, but it's simply not true. There are no such labels as weak or strong, the tremor is simply there, it just is. Our body is always working for us. We might not understand why and where it comes from, but our bodies always want us to be in balance so they will try everything to bring us there, and sometimes that doesn't appear in the form that we'd like.
Q: I imagine that once we do change the relationship with the tremoring, it's much easier to lean into it. Sure, we may speak in front of a crowd and we're still nervous, but it's not overpowering and we can kind of become friends with it.
I love that you used the word friend because that's how I like to describe it. Stress, tremoring, and my nervous system are my best friends now.
We wouldn't be stressed if our nervous system didn't think that there was some kind of danger.
Stress is only there when a part of us needs protection. When we work on the thing that needs protection and support, we can understand that stress has been supportive, we just need to find a different way to protect ourselves.
Q: How does it impact our life, relationships, and the quality of our life if our nervous system is activated and unregulated the majority of the time?
We can only relax, regenerate, have deep sleep, digest properly, etc. when we're grounded. When we're in fight, flight, or freeze mode, we're not focused on that. If we have a lion in front of us, our body isn't worried about digestion or sleep, it's going to send the blood into other parts of the body so we can run away or fight.
When we're unregulated in our daily lives, we never really get to a state where we can heal, have a deep sleep (a lot of sleep issues are actually rooted in the nervous system), it can lead to burnout, self-doubt, depression...
It has a huge impact on us.
Q: Last thing I want to talk about: I know you have a workshop coming up about confidence. How does the nervous system impact how confident we feel?
Yes, it's a workshop in German "Strahle von Kopf bis Fuß vor Selbstvertrauen" meaning "Radiate confidence from head to toe". When we experience doubt, self-criticism, or anything similar, that's our nervous system letting us know that a part of us doesn't feel protected and safe.
Self-doubt doesn't mean anything about us, it's just a sign that our nervous system is activated. Once we understand that and learn how to ground our nervous system, we can take our own safety into our hands.
This workshop supports us in building confidence that's not just coming from the ego mentality and how to naturally embody confidence from within. We do that by working and supporting our parts in feeling protection without needing to rely on self-doubt.
We all get insecure. If you ever think "omg, this person has it all together, they never feel doubtful or insecure", that's just your mind jumping into comparison, but it's not true. We're all human beings and we all feel these things. It's just that embodied confidence embraces self-doubt, insecurity, comparison... and owns them as a part of human existence.
Marlene's free workshop "Strahle von Kopf bis Fuß vor Selbstvertrauen" will be taking place in Studio Akasha, Bochum on Thursday, 27.10.2022, 18:00-20:00. If you want to know more about the nervous system, TRE® or would like to experience TRE® online or come to one of Marlene's weekly TRE® workshops in Bochum, you can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook. Her presence is such a gift to this world, I hope she inspires you as much as she inspires me.
P.S.: I want to apologize in advance for the quality of my audio in the video, but please don't let that stop you from listening to all the wisdom Marlene has to share. 🙏
What was your biggest takeaway from the interview? Let me know in the comments! 👇
With all my love & gratitude