When we learn to easily track bodily sensations and direct our attention in certain ways based on those sensations, we build a sense of trust that our bodies will lead us in situations where our primitive brain knows best. We thus become capable of meeting stressful situations, knowing we can protect ourselves by trusting the innate wisdom of our nervous system. Before delving into the practice, it is helpful to understand some basics about how this works.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system responsible for control of the bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes. It has two branches; the sympathetic nervous system, which engages when we are activated, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which in employed when we are resting. The healthy autonomic nervous system is continually moving in a rhythmic cycle that pendulates between activation (within the sympathic nervous system) and deactivation (within the parasympathetic nervous system).
It’s like the rhythm of a healthy labor when the contractions come and go at regular intervals. The rest period between contractions is just enough to rejuvenate the body to handle the next contraction. Labor is a blatant representation of the same type of rhythm that occurs continually within our nervous systems all of the time without us knowing it. Our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated by small stressors in our environment but our parasympathetic nervous system automatically compensates to bring us back into balance. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase in response to stimulation and then decrease to find equilibrium. Our muscles subtly contract and relax, our pupils constrict and dilate, our metabolism slows and speeds up, our breathing changes.
The Stream of Life
Peter Levine uses an analogy in the Somatic Experiencing curriculum called the "Stream of Life" to demonstrate what must happen within our nervous systems in order for them to stay in balance. Click the link below and watch the video to see this analogy illustrated.
Stream of Life Video
Patterns of Labor
We can also think of it as the patterns of a healthy labor. In early labor, it is possible to find rest between contractions while going about daily activities. The vortex is small enough that the body finds the counter vortex without much effort or focused attention. But as the contractions get stronger, longer and more intense, the vortex becomes larger and stronger so the body demands greater and greater attention to the rest period between the contractions. The body releases the right hormones to facilitate rest and relief from pain in order to have the strength to return in a rhythmic pattern back to the ever increasing contractions, keeping the labor pattern healthy and productive. Let’s imagine that the bank of the river represents the laboring person’s capacity for resiliency. As the labor increases and the counter vortex increases, the banks of the river widen. Likewise, the more you are able to find your counter vortex within your body in response to the stresses of your life as a midwife, the wider your capacity will become.
A Drive Down a Curvy Road
Yet another analogy is a drive down a curvy road. We can think of the gas as the function of the sympathetic nervous system and the brakes as the work of the parasympathetic nervous system. When we’re driving well, we’re exhibiting finesse in the use of the gas and the brakes. When we apply too much gas, we then have to apply a heavy foot to the brakes to get around the curve. The more driving skills we develop, the more comfortable we become handling even the most challenging roads.