Pendulation is an exercise to develop a relationship between the “unresourced” and the “resourced” parts of our consciousness or inner universe. Between the lost and the found, the fragment and the whole.
Note that this is all from my personal experiences as a Somatic Experiencing client who experiences PTSD.
Stressed Out of My Mind. “I’m lost,” I said to my boyfriend today, lying next to him in bed looking at a huge pine tree behind the light blue apartment houses outside. It was sunny. I felt like I was looking into chaotic shifting worlds. “I don’t know where I belong,” I said and closed my eyes against his arm.
It’s been six years since the accidents, but in terms of the undercurrent of panic and anxiety in my body, it could have been yesterday. Of course, there have been quite a number of additional significant traumas of various types since the accidents to add to the situation, because trauma seems to beget trauma.
These days I still have the tendency to fall into downward spirals of nervousness. It’s worst during the night and in the morning before waking up; during the night I still sometimes return to the extreme fears, and have nightmares. I don’t have nightmares or flashbacks of the accidents themselves like I did in the first couple years or so, but I have “general” nightmares way more frequently than I think is healthy. I used to get triggered at the moment of waking up because that was the moment I would “awaken” to fearing that I was dying; that specific experience of waking up in sheer panic has subsided in the last year I guess, but that time of day is still by far the worst in terms of anxiety, nightmares, panic, etc.
And, I do still feel “shattered”; lost in space and time.
Triggers and More Triggers. Although certain things have reduced in intensity, my nervous system still tends to become agitated by triggers.
For example, I have been in sometimes pretty severe physical pain in the last few months, which reminds me of the accidents after which I was in a lot of pain and believed I was dying. This can generate a lot of terror.
Then, my boyfriend constantly triggers me simply by existing. When I hear him get angry about something, I become tense and upset and know I’m triggered. But even if I sense something just related to him “being”, something I don’t register consciously but that relates to past experiences with those of the male persuasion i.e. men, I tense up inside a little.
And there are many more…
All these triggers poke away at my tender inner map of wounds, with sledge hammers or with pin pricks, causing outright terror to subtle, almost imperceptible agitation.
So, that is the situation. If I am experiencing, say, 5 triggers simultaneously, I MAY fall into a debilitating downward spiral of extreme anxiety. WHAT TO DO?
Pendulation is something we almost always did in therapy, but its’ something I forgot I could use. Lately, since I’ve been so extremely nervous, I’ve been making myself sit down and do pendulation as I was taught.
Looking at the Dynamics of PTSD that Pendulation Addresses
Generally speaking, while experiencing PTSD, we may constantly, all day and night, be living out the relationship between Scary Things and Feelings of Fear (i.e. triggers and activation).
There are subtle Scary Things, such as a smell or sound that makes us tense up without realizing we are having a trauma-related response (like my boyfriend’s audacity at existing as a male human). Then there are big Scary Things, like traumas and triggers that really set us over the edge, or major stressful events and crises (like having pain in my abdomen and writhing on the bed thinking I must be dying).
When there is a constant barrage that is outside of our control, the system is always tensing, feeling alert, going into hyperarousal, and overreacting, in other words, becoming “activated,” Then due to so much activation, we collapse into immobility and exhaustion.
Inability To Make Decisions. This dynamic is mirrored in problems with decision-making. Trauma pretty much fries the nervous system and it’s very difficult to focus mentally when triggered and overwhelmed. All the details of each decision loom large and become painfully obtrusive mentally, overwhelming senses and thinking alike. After trying to push push push myself, in the midst of intense fear, I collapse in pure exhaustion and just stare blankly out the window.
Hot-Cold Broken Records. In the above scenarios there is a highly activated, stressed state followed by a collapse into a very checked-out, numb, deadened, apathetic, exhausted state. Hyperarousal and immobility, pressure cooker and limp rag doll, frenzy and exhaustion.
I call this the HOT-COLD broken records. The nervous system gets stuck like a broken record in activation – HOT – and then stuck frozen in immobility or inner deadness – COLD. One isn’t really in control of this. Rather, it’s like someone outside oneself is putting one broken record on for a while, then putting the other on. This is stressful and impairs our ability to function, make decisions, think, handle all the issues we all face in life.
The Calmest Moments I Have Ever Experienced. I remember when I used to go to Somatic Experiencing therapy. In the therapist’s office was a deep, permeable feeling of peace. Everything slowed down; I recall it was so slow I even noticed dust motes floating through the air. From this ground of peace, balance, and depth of calm I could begin to easily see my future. Decisions came to me like fully formed landscapes emerging from the fog.
The Pendulation Exercise, and Somatic Experiencing in general, helps us to go from a Helpless and Reactionary Relationship between Triggers and Activation to an Empowered and Conscious Relationship between Activation and Resources.
What is a “Resource” then?
My List of Words for Resource. A Resource is… Stability, support, peace, calm, sense of home, goodness, wellness, safety, sustenance, solace, grace, fullness, wholeness, richness, generousness, overflowing, bounty, intactness, natural order, natural spot, connected, “oasis spot.” That which can give help and resolution to the unresourced parts. Unresourced: Parts of the self that are “unresourced” are afraid or hurting and have no access to help or any way to find resolution.
I like to refer to resources as “Oasis Spots” where we get healing water to sooth the hurt parts of Self:
Definition of Resource (Wikipedia): “‘Resources’ are defined phenomenologically as anything that helps the client’s autonomic nervous system return to a regulated state. (p.xx, 63-79). This might be the memory of someone close to them who has helped them, a physical item that might ground them in the present moment, or other supportive elements that minimize distress.”
PARENTS AND CHILDREN
One very natural manifestation of connecting to resources is when a child hurts themselves or becomes frightened and runs to their parent. The child will be highly activated, maybe screaming and crying. Usually the parent holds the child, rocks the child, strokes the child, and talks in calm, soothing tones. Gradually the child’s attention becomes aware of the sensation of being held and rocked and the feeling of the parent’s hand stroking them. The child gradually tunes into the soothing sounds and words, and calms down. So, the linking of resources to someone needing them happens all the time between parents and children, and between family members, couples and friends as well.
Restoration of the way nature built the nervous system to function. When I did a lot of Pendulation in therapy, it really had a deeply calming effect on me. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently Pendulation gradually restores the natural way the nervous system functions. The nervous system is actually designed be fluid and flexible enough to flow through hot and cold states also flow into calm alert, the neutral and calm state that is optimal for handling life.
Looking to nature, plants and animals naturally heal after trauma. We don’t; we have to put effort into re-creating in ourselves the conditions for nature to heal us. Pendulation creates internal conditions to reactivate the natural flow and rhythm between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, restoring them to the way they were designed to function.
To quote from an excellent article: “The healthy nervous system is constantly in a state of expansion and contraction, called pendulation. We want our clients to have this kind of flexibility and fluidity. The SE therapist assists clients to start pendulation. One of the tools SE therapists use is looping between resources or conflict free states and small titrations of traumatic material. This process of looping kick starts the natural self-regulation of the nervous system and a natural rhythm of pendulation.”
And another nice quote from a great blog:
“I learned that pendulation takes the autonomic nervous system from sympathetic nervous system response (flight or fight) to parasympathetic nervous system response (rest, relaxation, rejuvenation, digestion). The rhythms of pendulation create a norepenephrine flush of the adrenal system, decoupling the physiologic trigger of post-traumatic stress injury.”
I use Pendulation mainly for fear (nervousness, terror, anxiety, hyperarousal, immobility, panic) and physical pain, but it can be used for any distressing emotional state, even being numb and blank of any emotion (flat affect, immobility, playing dead, etc.). I personally believe that Pendulation can also be used with any strong emotion, not just PTSD but grief as well, for example.
Pendulation helps us handle emotions in a healthy way rather than be engulfed by them or repress them.
– I recommend first doing this with a therapist because they create a safe, controlled environment and lead the process.
– this is the way I do this exercise just based on my own therapy sessions, and I stopped therapy short due to moving so I may not have really done all facets of Pendulation yet.
– there are many variations of this exercise.
– there are many other exercises to handle activation states, including guided meditations, visualizations, other kinds of somatic work, etc. The idea is to find a handful that work for you and then do them consistently.
– this exercise incorporates the felt sense, internal awareness, and simultaneity exercises discussed previously (in the book).
1. Pendulation begins with the Felt Sense Exercise.
(see Felt Sense Exercise if you need more guidance)
Focus your awareness on any difficult feeling present. Feel slowly and gently into the sensations of this state of activation.
If it’s a large feeling of activation, you can just focus on the edge of it, as if it is pile of tennis balls and you are just taking one of them lying on the edge for now. Or a bucket of cherries…
You may gently feel into an area of disturbance in your:
- physical body – tension, physical pain, etc.
- emotional body – sadness, regret, etc.
- energy field – pulsating, tingling, rush, electricity, etc.
(when you get more experienced, you can experiment with focusing also on mental states like confusion, negative ideas, etc. but this exercise is mainly for physical and emotional states)
Welcome. Repeating to yourself, “Pain (or Fear or whatever it is) you are welcome here. Pain you are welcome here,” can help you open up to the sensations.
Notice the sensations and impressions.
You may notice things like:
- sensations, hot, cold, pain, tingling etc.
- visual images, colors, shapes etc.
- motion – up, down, inward, outward
- textures – rough, smooth
Here is a list of words to give you some ideas: foggy, curdled, contracted, gray, rotten, twisted, turned inwards, stagnant, jagged, yellow, piercing, searing, sharp, frozen, suffocating, numb, heavy, crushing, cold, empty, rigid, in shock, etc.
Name. You can give the grouping of sensations a name. For example I often call it “Fear.” Or you can experiment with just being aware without any words.
Honesty. Track the sensations. Focus on whatever happens to be present in the moment. Really be honest of the true sensation each moment even if it moves into a different area and shifts into something else. Don’t project ideas onto what is. As Levine says, simply observe as if you are watching the water in a stream swirling, rippling, going fast over the stones and slow in little side pools.
2. Find an Oasis Spot.
Then start to scan your body for a totally different feeling – you are looking for a part of the body that you may have overlooked, a part that feels neutral, natural, calm, peaceful, whole. It can feel settled, supported, grounded, connected, satisfied, content, comfortable. This is actually a space of resource, or as I like to call it an “Oasis Spot.” Even if it is just a tiny spot, locate an area that has a feeling of calm.
For me it is often the thighs, buttocks, calves, feet, and sometimes back. Many times it is consistently in the same places but not necessarily all the time, so be aware if the feeling shifts into different areas. For example recently it has been in my arm and shoulders, places it has never been before.
Spend some time sensing into this spot just as you did with the area of activation.
It might feel VERY unfamiliar to you!
Even if the sense of calm is very faint, or seems elusive, just rest your awareness on it. Just watch it.
What does it feel like? Notice the sensations and impressions (Felt Sense Exercise).
Some words that may describe this ‘Oasis Spot” area: calm, relaxed, resting, restful, peaceful, content, warm, still, light, effervescent, flowing, hopeful, expansive, whole, joyful, wise, colorful, bright, glowing, watery, clear, scintillating, satisfied, civilized, deep, swirling, happy, smiling, true me
You can experiment with giving it a name. Often I call it “Calm.”
Note that you can access many types of resources, for example, imaginary places, people or beings; places in nature or in the world; moments you remember being deeply safe and peaceful. I will go into these in a later article. I personally find it nice and simple to just focus on the body as I am practicing and learning.
3. Go Back and Forth.
Slowly move your point of awareness back and forth like a pendulum between the activation and the resource.
Rest your awareness in the field of activation in and around the body and then allow your awareness to travel to the field of resource in and around the body, then return.
Do this slowly.
You can use the names you chose, for example, “Fear…Calm….Fear…Calm”
Pay attention to what happens.
Be Aware of Discharge. Just notice if you spontaneously take a deep breath, shiver, or a part of your body moves – as you relax, your body releases energy. This is healthy.
“In the face of arousal, “discharge” is facilitated to allow the client’s body to return to a regulated state. Discharge may be in the form of tears, a warm sensation, the ability to breath easily again, or other releases of energy which demonstrate the ANS returning to its baseline. Through this process the client’s inherent capacity to self-regulate is restored.” – Wikipedia
“SE therapists watch for physical signs indicating the release which may come in various forms such as small shivers, deep breaths, hot or cold flashes. Then, it takes time for the client to reorient to the present, the here and now, and resources or conflict free states. This natural rhythm and flow is self-regulation of our nervous system as it digests traumatic material in the body. and it is important to allow sufficient time to establish a positive connection in the here and now before entering another movement into the traumatic state.” – article.
Body ‘s Unfinished Actions. When I do Pendulation on myself I usually just let the body gradually calm down and when I feel calm enough I stop. The thing is, I believe therapists help clients into deep, unexpressed bodily actions at this stage. I know at some point, when I feel ready, I will need to go even deeper with Pendulation and, with a therapist, find the places that want to Push Away, Run, Fight etc. and allow the body to act out physical motions to release all that trapped energy. I personally would want to be working with a therapist to go through this “body in action” process of resolution. It’s important to work with a therapist especially when accessing the Fight energy that wants to lash out, or to get revenge – the therapist has the skills to help one stay deeply present even if accessing intensity, body memories, and stores of pent up energy.
Find Equilibrium, Calm Alert. End when you are more calm and centered than when you began. You may not be 100% in calm alert but just somewhat calmer. Even if you just managed to get 20% calmer, it’s a great accomplishment…
Congratulations! By doing the Pendulation Exercise, you just showed a willingness to learn that it is within your power to reduce a state of activation by yourself. You are on the path to learning how to self-regulate.
Note: In the diagram, the elements are pictured around the body but more often they are within the body and sometimes the sensation seems to be extending around the body. It is pictured that way as a simple visual representation.
For more on Pendulation, see Pendulation Article 2, to read an analysis of self-regulation and Article 3 to read about benefits of this exercise.
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine – book
Healing Trauma by Peter Levine – book and audio CD
Freedom From Pain by Peter Levine – book and audio CD
Beyond the Trauma Vortex Into the Healing Vortex by Gina Ross – book
How Does Somatic Experiencing Work? article on therapist Mary Ware’s website.
Pendulation, trauma release and bodywork article on First of Nine: Tensegrity Blog
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.