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Crisis and Coping: An Understanding of Somatic Release

Natasha Maxwell, M. Ed.

With my eclectic artistic hobbies and interests, not everyone realizes that I have a strong background in studying psychology, trauma, and neurological development. Artistry often takes center stage of what people see most from me because it is how I best cope with pain and adversity. I also have an analytical and logical side that isn't always on display. I incorporate my trauma-informed background into promoting art, recreation, and wellness. Even though I am well versed in coping strategies, I'm a grieving human, and knowing what is going on inside my mind and body doesn't shield me from experiencing the pain of mourning. I struggle like other people, which I accept because it's a universal truth; we all suffer at some point in our lives.

My husband's death profoundly impacted my self-esteem and sense of identity. Accustomed to the mental constructs of being a wife and having a family, my husband's death shattered my sense of reality. I remember in the earliest days how I felt detached from the world. The landscape seemed to lose the vibrancy of leaves on trees, and I stared at the wind-blowing branches while thinking, "none of this is real." If you haven't experienced a traumatic loss, these feelings or experiences might seem unusual or even frightening. These sensations of detachment are pretty standard and common with trauma and loss and are often a built-in coping mechanism to protect our minds from emotional turmoil.

The months passed with more significant levels of grief consuming me when my father died of a heart attack while sick with Covid. The shock of another substantial loss overran my coping mechanisms and ability to respond logically to the circumstances. I shut down, became reclusive, developed severe anxiety, and could hardly function well enough to maintain my household. The perceived failures I experienced exasperated my anxiety and led to depression. The fight to overcome the intrusive thoughts of hopelessness, despair, and fear became too challenging to handle on my own. I began grief counseling and changed my career priorities to focus on healing and recovering from grief (read further for my explanation on why I call this a recovery).

This timeframe also included the realization that my one-year-old was no longer speaking. Kaelyn had been speaking up to 14 words and stringing 2-4 words together until her dad's death. The sudden and abrupt change in our household was too tricky for her developing mind, so she began struggling with grief. Our family's pediatrician diagnosed Kaelyn with pediatric grief and adjustment disorder based on her selective mutism and withdrawn social behavior. Our family was experiencing a crisis point.

A crisis is when the shock of a traumatic event compromises our developed coping mechanisms and resources. I recognized the crisis but could not respond effectively because my mind was too traumatized and exhausted with grief. I was emotional and reacting rather than responding. The difference that response utilizes the brain's logic and reasoning areas rather than the brain's survival areas that activate "fight or flight." With years of training and education in trauma-informed practices, I was still struggling. I began focusing deliberate energy on changing my response to grief from emotionally reactive to logically responsive.

Leaning into my love of cirque (circus performance arts), visual arts, and musical theater, I found a healthy outlet to express my sorrow and frustration. I practiced my hobbies and interests daily, studied topics I love, volunteered with nonprofits that share a similar vision, reached out to friends, and began growing outside of my comfort zone. I gradually became less anxious, less depressed, slept better, experienced fewer nightmares, became more patient, developed better focus and attentiveness, and was more capable of handling the burdens and responsibilities of widowhood. These physical activities became a somatic release for the anxious energies I experienced with grief.

Somatic release has promising scientifically studied results on helping the mind and body regulate, returning to homeostasis. Movement, recreation, and artistic expression are physical activities that allow the body to process and do something with the hormones and other chemicals overproduced by a traumatized mind. With regular practice of activities that enable somatic release, the body begins a return to a regulated and well-balanced physiological state. A regulated mind and body can respond logically and rationally to challenges because it's not overburdened or exhausted. The energy and focus needed to perform daily tasks effectively become more natural and less forced. It's a process that requires mindfulness, self-awareness, and choice-making that promotes a path to recovery.

In next week's blog post, I will share much more information on how to regulate the mind and body, including my favorite activities for somatic release and more trauma-informed tips for planning your recovery from trauma or complex traumatic experiences. If you have questions or comments about the topics I addressed in this blog post, please feel free to reach out or leave a comment below.

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