This is Part 2 of this article
Peter Levine’s 2 Step Self-Holding Exercise
Synonyms (alternate titles):
Inter-palmal Self-Regulation, (inter-palmal = between the palms, self -regulation = regulation of one’s own physiology), Self-Therapeutic Touch, Hand Placement for Self-Induced Homeostasis, Hand Positions for Internal Balance, The 2 Step Self-Soothing Hand Positions Exercise
It may be difficult for others to understand, but people with PTSD can suffer extreme states of terror, hyperarousal, immobility, nervousness, internal chaos, mental chaos and overwhelm that they simply cannot figure out how to escape. This exercise is an “escape,” a road out.
The goal of this exercise is to calm the nervous system, bring the Self back into the body, develop more body awareness, and to train one’s own nervous system to remember what normal is like. As with the above exercise, the goal of this one is also to feel the body as container and get a sense of having boundaries. Also, we can use these exercises to develop self-regulation; we can begin to feel skilled and empowered to change the physiological and emotional states we find ourselves in.
You may have your eyes opened or closed, whatever feels most comfortable for you.
You may lie down or be seated.
Get into a comfortable position.
Place one hand on your forehead. If you are laying down, you may place 3 pillows to one side so you can relax your arm onto the pillows as you rest your hand on your forehead.
Place the other hand on your heart.
Pay attention to what is going on inside your body. Gently place your attention on where your hands and body meet. Pay attention to the area inside yourself under one hand. How does it feel now that there is a hand touching it? Then pay attention to the hand. How does it feel now that it’s touching your body? Do the same for the other hand. Focus on whichever hand you feel drawn to, at your own pace, for as long as needed.
Remain that way until you feel a shift.
You may have to wait a long time, so be patient.
Peter Levine instructs us:
“Just feel what goes on between the hands and the body. Sometimes they will feel an energy flow or a change in temperature or a feeling… I just ask them just to keep their hands there, it could be a few moments, or 5 or 10 minutes, until they feel some kind of shift.”
Take the hand that is on your forehead and place it onto your belly.
Repeat as in STEP 1. Pay attention to any feelings going on inside your hands. Then put your attention inside your body; focus on the sensations in your body where your hands are laying. You may go back and forth slowly if you like, focusing on one hand area and then the other. Focus on whichever hand you feel drawn to, at your own pace, for as long as needed. Wait until there is a shift.
“Then take the upper hand and put it on the belly. And again just wait until there is some shift, until there is some flow, and sometimes people, if they are unable to sleep or they are afraid, they will have nightmares. If they do simple things like that, they will fall into sleep much more easily.”
Congratulations. You have just taken a step to nurture yourself and help sooth your trauma related symptoms.
Observations of the exercise:
When I began to do this exercise, most of the time the first shift occurred as a spontaneous deep breath after which my breathing would change to a deeper, slower rhythm and my muscles would relax. Now that I have been doing the exercise for a few months, the shift is more subtle and gradual as if entering the space of the body in a deeper way.
It still sometimes takes a very long time to feel a shift. For me it seems to depend on how much chaos my nervous system is at the time. If the chaos is very high, it will take longer.
On only one occasion the exercise did not work because my system was in too much turmoil to calm.
Theories about why these kinds of exercises work:
1. The human nervous system responds to touch. Hands-on healing has been used by humanity since ancient times. This could have to do with electrical currents, or the fact that we are calmed and held in specific ways as babies.
2. This is one of many exercises that forces one to focus on the body, this change of attention and awareness is therapeutic. See also exercise Felt Sense.
3. This is training one to be gentle towards self rather than harsh. This helps to build up this kind of relationship to self – a relationship that is characterized by being gentle, caring, kind and nurturing.
Self-Holding Exercises and The Self
This is a container strengthening and building activity which helps one begin to experience a sense of “Self.”
Sometimes trauma seems to erase the sense of having a Self and where that Self might be in space and time. Doing either of the above exercises and giving the exercise a chance to sink in, in other words opening the body to allow the body to receive the exercise, can bring back a feeling of Self. This might occur first by having a feeling of having a location in space, being solid and being in one location. There may be a sinking into the internal awareness that “I have edges” which in turn helps bring an awareness that “I am here” (location in the world) and “I am me”(ego-identity). This helps with restoring one’s identity as a normal human being rather than being shattered and nothing.
Then one might experience a feeling pride in Self, a feeling of fierceness, a desire to defend Self. This is the sense of Self-defense and Self-esteem coming online. Once Self is found, it is easier to feel the desire to protect and defend it, and to feel proud of it. If one has no access to Self, concepts such as self-esteem and self-defense can be confusing. They may make sense intellectually but not experientially. It’s not that one does not care about these concepts, one may care a lot about them; it’s just that they make no sense without an embodied experience of Self.
One may begin to gain a sense of having emotional boundaries, the sense of what is OK and what is not OK to experience emotionally and in relationships. This boundary awareness could have been completely lost or misplaced as a result of the traumatic experiences.
Accessing Self would also allow access to the inner knowing of what one wants some refer to as “My Truth” or “My Personal Truth” as well as one’s Personal Will, the “decider” or action-taker. The ideas of Personal Truth and Personal Will probably are difficult for someone who has no access to Self to really truly “get.” Once that connection to Self is re-established, feelings will begin to arise from Self – the feeling of dislike for something, or of liking something. These feelings develop complexity, maturity and expression and eventually become “My Truth” about a situation. Access to the Will also may come back online and one can act on their Truth which eventually turns into the development of authenticity.
There is a baffling passivity that comes with having no access to Self and being stuck in states of Immobility (deer in headlights) Dissociation (mind is in another time/place) and Hyperaraousal (uncontrollable terror). Of course, as the agent of life (Self and Will) has been totally obfuscated and lost, passivity would be expected. These exercises help gently bring one out of this extreme passivity.
Additional Self-Holding Exercises:
1. Fear-Soothing Self-Holding Exercise. Place one hand at the back of the neck right at the base of the skull, place the other over the solar plexus (right under the rib cage). (I learned this one from a spiritual teacher)
2. Lower Body Inclusion. This is for the more flexible: Lay on your side and place one hand on your heart and the other at the base of the spine/tail bone.
3. Mental Container / Mental Calm Exercise. Place your hands on each side of your head, so they are holding and soothing each hemisphere of the brain. Then place one head on your forehead and one hand on the back of your head. Feel how your hands create a container for your thoughts.
4. Patting Exercise. In the same video, Peter Levine also introduces the patting exercise. Pat yourself all over, to point out to yourself where your edges are. Sense into the feeling of having edges, the place where you end and the rest of the world begins.
5. The 5 Step Self-holding Exercise. Please follow this link to read the article about how to do this exercise.
This article is available as a downloadable PDF that has been formatted for printing. Go to the Printable Articles page to download it.
Sources for this article:
NICABM, National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine 2013 Trauma Therapy webinar series. (highly recommended)
Peter Levine, Somatic Experiencing
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.