Here's a technique that came to me while working with a client who'd suffered a rear-end collision in her car with no warning. I was reflecting on the fact that she'd had no time to do any defensive orienting, when it occurred to me to use a hand-held mirror to allow her to see behind herself: as if she'd had the time to look in the rear view mirror and see the car coming. Then we could see what wanted to happen next.
This client had come in to deal with long-held fear and a recent major uptick in anxiety. The uptick occurred when someone she knew had an accident and was injured. Her rear-end collision was two years before we met.
In the first two sessions, she learned to track cycles of activation and de-activation, while also taking note of any discharge of energy, which she experienced as tingling all over her body.
In the third session, I had her lay out her sense of her personal boundary using a rope. (This is an exercise I learned in my Beginning 2 training in SE®.) With her boundary laid out concretely around her, she felt a much greater sense of safety and empowerment. After exploring that thoroughly through her felt-sense and other elements of SIBAM,* I brought out the mirror. Letting her know what I was going to do before I did it, I slowly walked around the periphery of the rope boundary, with her watching me in the hand-held mirror as I moved behind her. We stopped to process cycles of activation, deactivation, and settling, noting any releases of energy as they occurred.
*Editor's note: SIBAM stands for the five core components of human experience, upon which much of Somatic Experiencing® techniques are based:
- Sensation – e.g., tension, heat, relaxation
- Image – internal (memory, dreams, metaphors) or external (an object in the room)
- Behavior – e.g., posture, facial expressions, gestures
- Affect – feelings and emotions
- Meaning – beliefs, judgments, thoughts, analysis (often expressed through words)
[Adapted from Somatic Experiencing Association UK]
Eventually we took away the rope and I stood behind her, representing the car. I approached slowly. She wanted to turn and look numerous times. All of this we did with cycles of activation and settling. Finally, at my invitation to put the car as far away as needed for her to feel comfortable, she imagined the car very far away behind her (on another continent), at which point a protective response came forward.
When she returned the following week, she reported that she'd not been feeling much anxiety that week, attributing the positive change to our work.
Another client who had whiplash (from three rear-end collisions) came in with complaints of stiffness and soreness in his body. In our second session I brought out the hand mirror and together we performed an exercise taught in Beginning 2 which I call the “stop boundary” exercise. The practitioner moves towards the client— slowly— and when the client senses some internal shift or activation, they put their hand out in a “stop” gesture and perhaps also say “stop.” I had him hold the hand mirror and look in it to see me standing behind him. On our first small pass at this, I didn't represent a car. I was just myself, slowly walking up behind him, and that was enough. Activation came pretty quickly, and he told me to stop. He then reported feeling intense heat in his arms and upper back and this continued for several minutes. I took this to indicate a release of energy in the autonomic nervous system: a good sign.
Then his arms went into freeze. (Talking later, we both guessed that this had more to do with an incident when he got stuck gripping a live electrical wire than with the car accidents.) He stayed with the freeze until his arms organically unfroze, starting with spontaneous movements in his fingers, and then he said his arms felt looser and like they were hanging from his shoulders— this was positive, i.e., hanging rather than being held. His jaw hurt, and as we did some gentle jaw work, he began to sense energy moving through his entire body, down his arms and legs. It was a pleasant sensation for him, one that made him feel alive. He then gradually settled into a calm, alert, and relaxed state.
I wanted to share this simple use of a hand mirror since it proved so fruitful with my clients. I think that if the mirror was hanging from something, so as to leave the client's arms and hands free, that would be even better. I welcome any comments.
Author Jane Lazar is a certified SEP and an ordained Zen priest. She has a private practice in Berkeley, CA and leads workshops at the San Francisco Zen Center, presenting education about trauma, teaching skills for regulating the nervous system, and exploring the relationship between mindfulness and SE principles. She is also an iRest Yoga Nidra teacher, holds a blackbelt in Aikido, and was a certified trainer (1995-2000) in Nonviolent Communication.