Around April of 2020 I sat in a park under a tree, overlooking a lake, completely in awe at the world around me. I could feel the bark of the tree etched alongside my spine, as I watched the sun’s rays hit the lake eliciting colors I had never seen before. Who knew that there were pinks in water? Clouds actually had silver linings and now I understood what this meant, ducks were so funny looking, they had me hysterically calling my friend to ask her, “Have you ever really looked at a duck?” The silence was something I was basking in each time I could. It provided for me, almost a euphoria. I felt a deep connection to the world around me and a reverence I had not experienced before this day. I often look back at this day in the park with a fondness as a pivotal time in my neural retraining journey. I had been sick, confused, panicked, frustrated, depressed, for so long and this day felt like the complete opposite. Though I was not entirely free of chronic illness, I knew it was not so far away. I was free.
Since then, I continued practicing DNRS, (or at least my version), and though I never really watched the videos of the program, I knew that retraining the limbic system of the brain was the way to heal. I still am grateful that it gave me health.
However, as I work with more people, study and use somatic experiencing practices, and listen to others in the community, I am inclined to criticize some aspects.
For the purposes of this article, I will only speak about one, the avoidance of negative emotions. I want to say first, I did not watch the videos of DNRS, but when I began to practice with “buddies” (where one person does a round and the other listens and vice versa), there was a known rule to never speak negatively in any way. I am unsure if this is identified in DNRS, or if the pillar, “Elevating emotions during retraining”, is interpreted this way. So, I found myself interrupting and reframing negative emotions, (of which I suffered greatly), elevating my mood , doing vagus nerve exercises, distracting, but only towards the end of my practices actually FEELING the emotion and being with it, when I began to discover and experiment with somatic experiencing on my own. This became very apparent in my somatic experiencing trainings this past year. I have been training to be certified in somatic experiencing as a practitioner, which I grew interested in after training in TRE by David Bercelli. I speak about TRE here.
In my own individual session practices with smaller groups , I was asked to notice what was occurring in my body. “Well”…I began to go into story, “truth is I don’t really notice any big emotions, in fact I feel very regulated, very calm, and I feel this alot. I retrained my nervous system to calm down so that I could heal…., and I did.” The more I spoke, the more I noticed my body react with a specific tic coming from the back of my neck, pushing my lower jaw forward, and it got bigger and bigger, until it stopped and my body felt like a balloon deflated. With the tic, I noticed yawns and my eyes tearing. These two body behaviors happen to me a lot, and I always feel “lighter” afterwards.
Of course, we became curious about what was occurring, and I began to speak more about how I no longer feel the big emotions I used to, “In fact, I dont even cry anymore”, I said with pride mixed with concern. I was asked to slow down and notice any sensation at all, and there it was, a hint of “sadness.” I was asked to describe it. “It is tiny, just a whisper in my chest, a tiny ache”, and as a I spoke yawns interrupted the tiny ache and I heard myself giggling and explaining to my classmates how yawning during my retraining was my signal when I had successfully interrupted a “trigger.” I continued to explain that I was now going more into parasympathetic, and how I had also used laughter to interrupt any trigger (external or internal). I was asked once more to notice what was happening and to bring my attention to the sensations I was feeling. I could feel again this tiny ache well up in my chest, and my eyes begin to tear slightly, a small restriction in my throat and thoughts relating to the situation. A yawn came on and again the tic. I now understood as I watched the tears disappear and yawns take over.
My body had developed a pattern of interrupting any negative emotion on its own.
This was not a completely new discovery, but I was clear now that my emotions were being interrupted by a very well trained body to shut off. I found myself missing and looking for emotions in the past year. In these trainings, I began to find them. In another session, this became even clearer to me. I was working with another classmate, who again asked me to notice what was happening internally. I started a “story”, this time it was about losing my emotions. “What do you think happened to them? Are they going to return?” As I asked these questions, my awareness grew wider and I noticed trembling in my legs. My body is very used to trembling due to all the work I have done with TRE. I knew, that the trembling was trying to interrupt an emotion, so I looked for it. I found again a whisper, in my chest, of sadness. I grew cold, I could feel my breath get shallow, and there in front of my classmates, I wanted to stay with the sadness, so I did and brought my awareness fully there, expanding it. I found sobbing again. It was the longest I had cried in over two years and it was only just 40-50 seconds before the tremoring, yawns and tic, ended it. After, I felt light. And, I knew how precious this practice was. This was confirmation that my emotions were there. I had just trained my body to interrupt when entering a negative state.
Somatic experiencing is about noticing and being with what is happening in the body, not becoming enmeshed in it. In other words, it is about noticing sensations and allowing yourself to be with them within “your training zone”, what is tolerable. Pushing the body to be overwhelmed by sensations, thoughts, emotions, will lead to flooding and regress further into sickness. It is about hearing and experiencing what the body is saying SLOWLY, to help build a greater capacity and containment for difficult sensations, regulate, and help the body complete the stress cycle it may be stuck in. For example, one stuck in a sympathetic state, through SE can learn to be with the sensations and emotions coming as a result of that state to help the body settle and eventually regulate.
DNRS asks for a complete interruption of the stress state one might be in. If for example, I am raging at someone, interrupting this rage to complete visualizations can of course help calm the system and tolerate the experience better, leading to physical health. But it is my opinion that the original anger should be slowly experienced in a tolerable, safe way (perhaps with the help of a practitioner),while pendulating to a positive resource, in order to increase capacity for the emotion. Someone who is stuck mostly in a freeze state would benefit from mindfully observing the body and noticing sensations in order to get reacquainted with emotions, help the body feel safe in having them, rather than shutting them off, and complete the stress cycle it is in, building the capacity and resilience to tolerate them
So, is DNRS something I still recommend or is it toxic positivity?
I have seen people speak about DNRS as “toxic positivity.” I can understand where they get this idea from, I disagree with this statement. DNRS is not about pretending. I did not pretend that everything was ok in my practice, I saw my life, health and situation realistically, but rather than dwelling on the negative, I found the good, the lessons and the positive in it. Life is about perception, and in my practice, I chose to interrupt and experience the positive. However, I will say, that I do not agree with avoiding all things negative in trying to achieve physical health, it is just not sustainable. I have seen people who perhaps take it a bit too far, avoiding any and all “negativity” and getting floored for example of the slightest “trigger.” Avoidance is not sustainable and creates a more sensitive system. As I stated, I did not fully watch the videos, so I did not avoid all negativity, I did the best I could. Even in the way I approached it, I do feel I did not allow myself to “be with”, and slowly experience all the emotions my body was speaking. I did over interrupt and ended up teaching it to interrupt itself, creating a pattern of what I may consider “over coupling.”
So, yes, I still do recommend and believe in neural retraining, but I would suggest to work with a somatic experiencing practitioner, or even mindfulness techniques to help expose yourself to negativity while building resilience. In DNRS when focusing on incremental exposure, this practice fits nicely. While most use incremental exposure to work on different external triggers like food and environments, it can also be used to go inward and expose yourself to challenging emotions. Somatic experiencing can be as simple as beginning to observe your body sensations (including emotions) when you are ready and allowing yourself to witness and experience them while holding a resource in awareness for when you need to interrupt the experience. There are different ways to work with the negative emotions, to help the nervous system learn that it is safe to be with them.
Most of all, please give yourself grace when retraining and realize that it is an adaptable practice for you to use and work with as you need. I still look back at 2020 with fondness for being in a purely positive state, one of complete awe and gratitude, however four years after my retraining practice began, I am still learning and if I could share with you lessons they would be that retraining is not just about becoming more positive, it is about building capacity to feel a whole range of emotions , facing any traumas of the past and helping the body to settle the activation from it, changing anything in life that no longer serves you, releasing people who may not fit in your life any longer, accepting where you have been, where you are, and where you may be going.