It means your nervous system isn't discharging as it should. A healthy nervous system instinctively works on the feeling of safety. If your activation is high (or you have experienced traumas), then releasing pent up energy may pose a problem.
This article may cause excessive yawning 🙂
We all know it. Yawning is contagious. We trigger each other with our yawns.
Is there more to it than that? Or are we connected to each other in ways we are unaware of :-O
Trouble having a good yawn?
Not everyone can yawn when someone's around.
It's true. Some people recognize that they stifle their yawns...they inveritably put it down to one of those idiosyncratic things human beings do from time to time.
Hopefully, they don't bagger or shame themselves for not being able to yawn around people. There's a good reason for holding back a yawn as I will soon explain.
For others, unless, it's brought to their attention, they might not even be fully aware of it. They know they're doing it, they just don't consciously bring it to their attention.
Whether or not you can yawn around others is a actually an indication of the level of your activation. The higher your activation the harder it will be to yawn around others.
Your 'activation' is related to your nervous system.
Why you can't complete a good yawn
One of the things I've noticed about using a somatic approach to counseling, is that I discover "little gems of information" from my clients. And this was the case in understanding the nature of a good yawn.
When clients come to see me for therapy today, it's often quite evident that their nervous system is having trouble letting go. Even when they report feeling relaxed, somewhere in the body it's holding tight. Shoulders may appear fixed in an awkward or uncomfortable position, or breathing may be labored or shallow.
In fact, they may have a hard time yawning in my presence. They can't let go to have a good yawn. (And, no it isn't about being afraid to tell me I'm boring.) But as our work proceeds however, one thing always seems to happen–they're finally able to have a good yawn!
So the following short piece is dedicated to the clients who helped me to understand "discharge".
Go ahead have a good satisfying yawn!
Recall the last time you had a really good yawn. You know, the kind where you felt your body settling in and letting go. You probably felt a little more relaxed, if only momentarily.
Our nervous system discharges several ways, yawning is one of them. As the nervous system discharges it releases excessive energy. As it does so our level of activation automatically goes down. As you may recall our activation is the felt sense of arousal.
As I yawn I feel my body letting go. I feel a little more relaxed.
You may also recall that our level of activation is determined by the accumulation of life experiences to date. Our nervous system has been recording every trauma we have ever experienced (including time in the womb and our birth experience).
And, to a large degree, whether you feel safety in your counseling depends on what your nervous system has learned from the past, especially through physical traumas and early relationship experiences with parents and caregivers.
Full yawns are a positive sign in counseling
We want discharge to happen. We feel calmer afterwards. As your comfort level increases in your counseling, you will find it easier to yawn.
It's a good way of tracking your progress in therapy. Finally, being able to have a good yawn in front of your therapist is therapy working well.
Your level of activation is like a barometer for how much danger Is perceived to be in the environment. In other words, our activation level determines to what degree my nervous system will feel wary.
As we yawn this reduction in activation is automatically registered as a less defended state. That is, we're now more vulnerable than we were a few seconds before we had our yawn.
The level of activation is determined primarily by how the nervous system unconsciously interprets both the immediate and the past environment. And it's the reptilian brain that "decides" whether it's o.k. to just let go and yawn. If there is too much activation in the nervous system, the reptilian brain will be setting off alarm bells. It will be in survival mode.
So, even when you know for sure that it's safe (after all, you're with your therapist!), if the reptilian brain doesn't think so it will keep you hyper-vigilant (i.e. activated). And when its in survival mode yawning is less of an option because unconsciously, danger is suspected to be in the environment.
Of course, this begs the question of why the nervous system is reading high danger when there's no obvious danger. You would think otherwise, especially in a counseling session.
So even if there is no objective reason for it, as in our counseling session example, activation in your nervous system will prevent you from yawning. You might still feel the urge for a good long yawn, but it's not going to happen!
Unsatisfying yawns are related to anxiety and depression
Both anxiety and depression can be viewed from the perspective of the discharge process. A nervous system that is not discharging optimally holds onto energy. The shaky feelings that sometimes accompany these states may likely be a sign the nervous system is having trouble discharging.
By the way, it's been the experience of body psychotherapists that if you allow yourself to feel these sensations - even to mildly exaggerate them - you help the process along.
Certain psychotherapies are especially good at helping the discharge process (e.g. Self-Regulation Therapy in Canada, Body Psychotherapy in the UK and Somatic Experiencing and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy in USA).
Therapy not your thing?
Yes, there are online programs that can help. Try myShrink's very own Brain Coaching Program 🙂
Heller, Diane P. (2001). Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide to Auto Accident Trauma & Trauma Recover. Berkely, California: North Atlantic Books.