DRMacIver's Notebook

Notes on shaking

Notes on shaking

The other night I was failing to sleep, feeling very physically agitated and generally unable to relax. So I followed through on the muscle tension, basically started shaking and shivering, and spent about 10 minutes writhing around on my bed, seemingly in agony (I wasn't, but I think an outside observer would very much have thought I was).

About a month ago now, I was doing the washing up, and had a bizarrely strong emotional reaction to it, and ended up curling up into a ball on the floor right there in front of the sink.

This is all a bit odd, but right now it's actually pretty normal for me. I'm hoping it will calm down as I work out whatever is going on, but so far it seems a moderately unpleasant and very weird but basically harmless and often quite helpful set of practices.

Anyway, let me start from the beginning.

Dear penthouse, a funny thing happened to me in bed recently

A few months ago at the time of this writing, I had a scary conversation with my girlfriend, Lisa.

I knew it was going to go fine, intellectually, but it was about something I have a lot of insecurities around, and that it was very easy emotionally to imagine it going badly. It was quite hard for me to even get out the words for my end of the conversation. I had to bring out the big guns: Having the conversation while cooking and pretending to myself it wasn’t a big deal.

It went fine, obviously. Lisa’s great and it was never not going to go fine. We had dinner, and then went to bed.

Shortly after we went to bed my legs started shaking. It started as a pretty comically stereotypical knees knocking type motion and gradually progressed into more full blown shakes.

I then spent the next two hours doing this, some of it shaking pretty hard. I’m reasonably confident I wasn’t having a seizure, but it's hard to describe what happened in a way that doesn't make it sound an awful lot like having a seizure. The main difference is that it felt like I could stop at any moment by just getting out of bed and calming down, although it did feel like that was what it would take - it wasn't uncontrollable, but it certainly wasn't easy to control.

Eventually that’s what I did - it didn’t stop because the shaking stopped on its own, it stopped because after about two hours I decided that I was entirely worn out by this and wanted to stop, so we got out of bed, I had a chamomile tea and calmed down.

During all of this, Lisa did a mix of holding me, telling me I was safe, and telling me to stop making jokes about it and just let it happen. “You can stop any time you want to, but you have to choose to stop, I’m not going to let you deflect.”

Lisa handled all of this very well. I was and still am impressed.

At some point in all of this I curled up into a ball. “Everything’s fine, I just need to curl up into a ball for a bit, as one does.”

This was one of the points at which Lisa told me to stop making jokes.

I’m not sure how long I was curled up for but eventually I had to uncurl because I’m nearly 40 and not all that flexible. Some time after that I realised that I was apparently not done and needed to curl back up.

One thing that I should mention here is that this whole process was boring. My conscious mind just found the whole thing weird and vaguely confusing and not that interesting. This is almost certainly a deflection. But there was no conceptual content and very little emotional content.

At some point I mentioned this and Lisa said that I seemed terrified. There was definitely a bit of an emotional response to that.

I did cry a few times during the whole ordeal, but it still felt very inhibited.

I slept reasonably well after this (I think Lisa slept less well. This was probably more stressful for her than it was for me).

The next day I had DOMS (muscle soreness). One interesting thing is that I had it much more in the leg I normally have chronic pain in, but the actual chronic pain was significantly reduced. This didn’t last, and I’m not sure it was real, but it sure was interesting.

War never changes

Such a dramatic incident should, naturally, result in a period of reflection and exploration and generally integrating the experience and learning from it.

Instead I spent the next two weeks on a war footing, engaged in a major dispute with my landlord, gearing up for a long protracted legal battle.

This then immediately evaporated when I got sufficiently serious that my landlord backed down, leaving a lot of fighty energy with nowhere to go.

This then was followed by about two weeks of depression in which I was basically nonfunctional. Very tired, spent most of the day watching videos and playing games. No ability to read at all except for very trashy fiction. I think of this as being stuck in a Freeze state, although I’m not sure if that’s strictly accurate.

This also was a period in which I was having really bad insomnia. Lots of physical agitation at night that wouldn’t go away.

I did use the big guns (watching Slay the Spire videos and very occasionally sleeping pills) and that helped a bit but the problem kept getting worse, and the mitigations helped less and less.

One night when I was having a particularly bad night I started paying attention to the physical sensations of the agitation and trying to see what sort of actions they “wanted” to do, and the result was more shaking.

I was watching a Baalorlord slay the spire video at the time and that felt quite helpful. It gave me something to focus on in between shakes and generally felt like it helped make the whole experience feel safer.

It felt quite different from the previous incident with Lisa. They weren’t the same motions particularly, and it was much more voluntary (it’s not exactly voluntary, but the previous incident it felt like I had to actively work to stop it, while this it felt more like I had to actively choose to lean into it in order to get anything to happen).

The other big difference is roughly... where the motion starts? Before it started from my legs and spread upwards, while this feels very focused on my upper body and sometimes spreads down into my lower. There’s also a lot more almost writhing around feeling out the right motion.

One interesting thing about this is that after every shake that I felt calmer. It was very specifically a place for the physical agitation to go. As a result, after about half an hour of this, I was able to fall asleep despite previously feeling very far from being able to do so.

Then the next day I was out of my Freeze state. I wasn’t feeling amazing, but I could think and read and generally function for the first time in weeks.

Since then I’ve found most nights have at least some of this. Not necessarily a huge amount, but often when I’m in bed there’s a bit of shaking and writhing around as part of getting relaxed enough to sleep.

What the fuck is going on?

Let's talk about Trauma Releasing Exercises.

Trauma releasing exercises (TRE) are a therapy tool the basic idea of which is that the natural response to traumatic events is to shake it off once you’re safe, and that we habitually suppress these shakes because they seem weird, and this causes a build up of trauma stored up in the muscles that we have to shake off. Their evidence for this shaking phenomenon is how people in shock behave and that various cultures do have more common habits of shaking after big events (the former seems true to me, I don't trust amateur anthropology so I'm somewhat reserving judgement on the latter, but it certainly could be true).

I’m a bit sceptical of this story but it certainly seems more plausible to me now than it did before.

I do basically subscribe to the theory that emotions are experienced bodily, and that the way to better understand your own emotions is to learn to pay attention to your own body.

I think also that muscle tension is often a way to regulate emotions. Certainly when I'm having a strong emotional reaction, I can literally "keep hold of myself", in a way that feels very physical like I'm tensing the appropriate muscles for control.

The "trauma is stored in the body" school of therapy seems to be about habitual patterns of muscle tension like this. If you're always holding yourself very tightly, keeping control of your emotions, then you'll build up habitual patterns of tension in your muscles, and learning to relax that tension is required if you want to have proper access to those emotions.

TRE are exercises designed to tire out your psoas muscle and trigger the shaking response that you see after a triggering event, in an attempt to "release the trauma" that you are storing in these patterns of muscle tension.

I’ve done them before and they’re super weird and interesting, but I didn’t notice much therapeutic effect. That being said, the initial leg shakes in my first night of this seemed a lot like the shakes from doing a TRE. I thought I’d try them again and see what happened.

It doesn’t feel much like the shaking I’ve been experiencing. There’s definitely a similarity in the leg movements, but it feels more purely physical.

One thing I did notice doing these is that I could almost feel the shape of things in my body and patterns of muscle tension from where the shakes were. In particular the shakes seemed to avoid my injured knee.

I do think that having done these in the past was an interesting reference point that made the spontaneous shaking feel safer, and they’re a good work out so I may try them some more, but I’m sortof convinced that these exercises are just coincidentally replicating the shape of something useful without being therapeutically useful themselves.

I do recommend them giving them a go though. They're interesting and worth trying at least once. This is the guided video I use.

But I really don't think they work, except by accident. Possibly they provide a good basis for creating a space in which to do the real thing, but they are not themselves the real thing and can't force it.

Interpretation as a barrier to right action

There's a principle I tried adhering to for a while. It's very sensible, seems theoretically well grounded, and is all round good advice except for the fact that as far as I can tell it doesn't work. Worse, it's so close to something that does work that it distracts you from the real thing.

The principle is this: If you would describe your feelings as "I feel like I want to just curl up into a ball", why not just curl up into a ball?

The answer is because if you do that then now you still feel the same way but also you feel kinda dumb. It doesn't help.

Here's the corrected version of the principle: If you want to curl up into a ball, why not curl up into a ball?

The difference is annoyingly subtle. It's in the lack of an interpretive layer.

Let me give you an unrelated example. You know the thing where doctors tap your knee to test your reflexes? I was quite bad at it as a kid.

How can you be bad at a reflex test?

Well, the first time the doctor tapped my knee I was like "Ah yes, I know what this test is, I'm supposed to kick" and kicked.

As well as being on a significantly longer delay, the kick was much more exaggerated than the reflexive jerk would be. It was very clear to the doctor that this was Not The Thing. He laughed and told me just to let it happen.

The next time he tapped my knee, I knew I wasn't supposed to kick, so my leg didn't move at all. Turns out, the reflex response is pretty easy to suppress if you try, it just requires holding your muscles tightly.

I assume we must have got the exercise working eventually but I don't remember for sure. This was like 30 to 35 years ago now, my memory is a bit fuzzy on the details.

Similarly, if someone throws a ball at you, and you see it, and you think "Ah, a ball, I should catch it", and move based on that thought, you'll probably fail to catch the ball.

There are two different ways you can respond to external events. One goes as follows:

  1. Observe.
  2. Interpret the observational data.
  3. Act on that interpretation.

The other goes:

  1. Observe.
  2. Act on that observation.

The former isn't bad, in that it inserts a great deal of intelligence into the loop that allows you to figure out things you wouldn't otherwise and act beyond your current capabilities, but it's also not exactly good. The results are awkward, and often poorly suited in detail. They tend to be clumsy and unnatural seeming, often poorly timed, overly strong, overly weak, or otherwise not quite fitting.

The same holds with acting on internal observations I think.

When doing Focusing, in the Gendlin sense, you are trying to put a description on a "felt sense", a physically felt bundle of sensations that capture some crucial feeling. You follow the felt sense until you find a description that feels right.

The most important sensation to pay attention to in Focusing is "no, that's not quite it". The difference between not quite right and the right thing is, to quote probably-not-Mark-Twain the difference between lightning and lightning bug.

Following through on your interpretation of the felt sense rather than the felt sense itself feels very much like a lightning bug, as do Trauma Releasing Exercises. Acting on the motion feels like lighting. Based on what actually happens, it probably looks a bit like being struck by lighting too.

Is this good?

Having borderline seizure-like episodes and randomly having tic-like symptoms or curling up on the floor in the middle of washing up the dishes seems bad, but I think this is good.

Certainly my quality of sleep has massively improved since figuring out how to do this. There's a lot of physical agitation that I sometimes experience on bad nights that this allows me to release that agitation in a way that makes sleep possible on nights when it would previously have been a massive struggle.

It also seems to allow me to get out of Freeze states, in a way that nothing I've previously tried behaviour ever has.

If that was all it did, this would be a huge massive win, but it also feels something like... this is what it's supposed to be like?

I don't think all the random shaking is supposed to be normal, but it feels like I'm clearing out a massive backlog of things that I've been suppressing for years.

It's also made me far more sensitive to certain sensations I think I've historically ignored. I'm much more aware of certain emotional states that were previously a complete mystery because I couldn't really put words to them. I still can't really, certainly not a good Focusing handle for them, but it turns out that some feelings are better expressed as motions.

I don't know where this is going - it feels like I've unlocked a missing piece of how things are supposed to work, and I'm still building out the foundations of that before I can even properly integrate it into the rest.

Tracing my steps

I don't want this to sound like I know what I'm talking about. I'm just reporting on a bunch of weird-ass experiences and my interpretation of them.

But given that I think this is probably good, if you've got similar problems to me it might be worth trying to figure out how to do it yourself.

How? Uh... excellent question.

The particular mental motion that triggers something like this is something like... notice a particular pattern of muscle tension, and stop stopping it from doing what it wants to do, then do whatever comes naturally next.

I expect that this explanation is completely unhelpful if you can't already do it.

Something that's helpful for triggering it more clearly is to notice the tension, tense it up further, and do a sort of "follow up on the rebound" - when you release the clench, your muscles move in a particular way, just let them keep doing that, and if any sort of movement naturally completes from there, let that happen.

I find this works particularly well for tension in my shoulders, and that often once I've started the motion, it often works downwards from there.

Another thing I've found helpful is being cold and then warming up. Literally being in a cold room, then covering myself in a fuzzy blanket, seems to be a great way to unblock access to this when in a Freeze state. This is I think consistent with how shock works - people start shivering when you cover them in a warm blanket.

I do think that giving the trauma releasing exercises is probably a good starting point for learning what it feels like to just shake uncontrollably. As I say, I don't think it really triggers the same effect, but I do think having done them made all of this more accessible.

Probably experimenting with just noticing muscle tension, and trying out movements and seeing which ones feel appropriate, and which ones trigger that "not quite right" sensation, is a good starting point.

I expect though the only way to learn to do this is to just do it, and that anything that lets you achieve it makes it easier the next time.

If you do experiment, please let me know what does and doesn't work for you. I'd also be up for any reading recommendations if you already know about all this and have recommended tools for working with it.