By Macaile Hutt
With the holiday season wrapped up, many of us are feeling the “come-down” from all the madness that time often brings. We feel excited and hopeful for a new year, but sometimes we still find ourselves carrying some of the weight and heaviness from the past year. It’s hard to feel both things at once, but this is how it usually is. I have collected heaviness, stored emotions, and feelings within my body for decades, and it wasn’t until recently that I learned how important it is to find ways to release this energy and allow our bodies and minds to know we are safe and not facing direct harm.
There has been quite a bit of research done on “burnout,” but almost all of it focuses on work and career. There isn’t much talk about relationship burnout, parent burnout, holiday burnout, general life burnout, endless sports schedule burnout, cooking three meals per day burnout, and the frequent burnout that comes from waking up wishing you had an adult to seek guidance from, only to realize you ARE the adult! Emily and Amelia Nagoski wrote a really incredible book titled, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, and it completely changed the way I view nervous system distress. I highly recommend their book or listening to any podcast interviews they have been featured on if you are experiencing the following symptoms in any aspect of your life:
• Emotional exhaustion: the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long
• Depersonalization: the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion
• Decreased sense of accomplishment: an unconquerable sense of futility, feeling that nothing you do makes any difference
Did you know that most animals shake repeatedly after a traumatic or stressful event? Whether they are the hunter or the hunted, their bodies will shake abruptly to signal their nervous systems that it’s safe to calm down after facing a life-threatening event. This shaking allows the autonomic nervous system to return to homeostasis, or balance, and the animal can rest, eat, play, and completely return to normal.
As adults and even children, we are often told to “cope” by remaining calm, staying still, and holding our emotions and feelings tightly within our bodies. This traps emotions and trauma within our cells and never gives it the opportunity to “close the loop” or allow our brains and bodies to recognize we are no longer facing a threat and find the homeostasis we so desperately crave.
Sometimes our legs will shake or our teeth will chatter immediately after experiencing a traumatic event almost as though our body is begging us to find a way to give it the go-ahead to return to feeling safe and secure. Another automatic example of this response is when we have an uncomfortable conversation or experience a traumatic event and shudder not only once the conversation is over but every time the situation crosses our mind thereafter. This trauma and stress is trapped in our body, ready to resurface every single time the memory crosses our mind. Add every other trapped stressful experience in our lifetime to the arsenal of stress we harbor within our bodies and it’s no wonder we are all walking around burnt out and completely unable to regulate.
It’s understandable that we wouldn’t be able to shake uncontrollably in the middle of a work meeting or while experiencing a situation in which we must remain composed or professional; however, taking a step away to somewhere private where we can allow our bodies to release these emotions and encourage the energy to escape from our pores can make a big difference in the rest of our day.
I recently found myself in the midst of a lot of unexpected stress and trauma on top of my daily responsibilities. Even positive stress such as scheduling events with friends or making time to exercise felt like it was going to completely push me over the edge. I wasn’t sleeping well, my heart was racing any time I tried to sit still, and I felt so hopeless it was hard to find a light at the end of the tunnel. Thankfully, I remembered this “shaking exercise” (also known as therapeutic or neurogenic tremoring), and I decided to give it a try.
Experts in the practice recommend starting small and understanding it might feel really foreign or silly at first. There are many different styles and even localized types of shaking (such as moving from head to toe or focusing on one limb at a time), but there’s really no right or wrong way to do it. The first time I actively “shook,” I was completely alone in my bedroom and I still found myself glancing around to make sure nobody could see how ridiculous I looked. I shook my arms and core, even giving my head and neck a few good shakes, and then I paused. Almost immediately, I felt a wave of emotion come over my body and I couldn’t tell if I was about to laugh or cry. I ended up doing both. What a sight I must have been!
I felt my breathing steady a bit, my heart rate started to come down, and I felt the most calm and peace that I had had in weeks. It wasn’t the end-all be-all, because immediately upon shaking I remembered all the many reasons I felt the need to shake in the first place, but it somehow felt more manageable or like I was in a better “head space” to tackle these things. Shaking closed the loop for my body and mind and helped my nervous system recognize that I wasn’t still actively facing the stressful event. Other ways to complete the cycle include physical activity, breathing strategies, positive social interaction, laughter, affection, a good cry, and creative expression. These are all things I try to do frequently, but I still find myself extra overloaded at times and will use this new technique to “shake things up” and give my body additional cues that it’s safe to turn the dial on my nervous system down a bit.
Since I started practicing therapeutic “shaking,” I have continued to notice subtle but profound differences in the way I manage stress, the way I’m able to cope when faced with unexpected triggers, and the way my body returns to a baseline even after experiencing these things. I have started shaking before and after stressful events and find myself looking forward to this signal that everything is okay. I sometimes turn the experience into more of a “shake it off” dance rather than just standing in one place and shaking, an activity kids love to be a part of and can reap the same benefits adults can by engaging in. It still feels absolutely ridiculous, but it also feels noticeably better afterward, so I wouldn’t knock it until you try it.
The last few years have done a number on all of us. We are facing burnout as a nation in collective ways we never have before. Every daily stress we face is only compounded by the umbrella of hopelessness and despair we are often standing under. If you are feeling this way, you are not alone. I see you; I’m with you. So the next time we face something that feels like it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, I challenge you to join me in – quite literally – shaking it off.
Macaile Hutt is the Director of Occupational Therapy for Star Speech and Occupational Therapy located in Star, Idaho. Her therapy style takes a holistic and child-directed approach, with the goal of children succeeding across multiple environments. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy from A.T. Still University and has received continuing education as a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional for Children and Adolescents (CCATP-CA), Handwriting Without Tears, pediatric kinesiotaping, Interactive Metronome, and Beckman Oral Motor. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, backpacking, and traveling.