I was photographing this week’s profile subject, Mary Shriver when I noticed a chin-up bar in her bathroom. She jumped up to demonstrate and ripped off a couple of impressive pull-ups before the bar became dislodged and she fell four feet onto the tiled floor, hitting her tailbone.
Then she did something I didn’t expect and began willfully shaking her body as if she were trembling vigorously. A few moments later, she was done. What came out with the shaking, she explained, wasn’t the pain, but the associated trauma and stress that might have otherwise built up in the nervous system from the fall.
“I could’ve made myself worse with worry,” she says.
One of the lesser known, but ascendant fields in psychology, Somatics, is based on the idea that including the body can help heal the mind far better than simply therapy or taking prescription pills. Acknowledging the mind and body as one helps people overcome things like chronic stress and trauma — and it forever changed the course of Shriver’s life.
That life began in privilege in an Upper East Side apartment across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. A precocious young girl who slept with a copy of Grey’s Anatomy on her bedside table, Shriver nevertheless set marrying well as the goal in her life.
“I was going to get married and have kids and that was the end of my short story right there,” she says.
She moved out to Los Angeles after college, and rolled with the cool, young celebrity set, working in an art gallery, then as a publicist and the personal assistant of a Nigerian prince (yes, really). Trauma hit early when her father died after a battle with AIDS and her mother died in a parachuting accident when Shriver was 25.
But she always prided herself on her resilience. After her mother’s death, she took a trip to Nepal and hiked for 10 days, spending that time thinking about what kind of person she would want to marry. She met him shortly after returning to LA. He was a jazz pianist and singer at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills and they ended up moving to Las Vegas together.
“Steve Wynn asked us to open up the Fontana Room at the Bellagio Hotel,” she says. “And he never wanted us to leave, so we stayed in Vegas.”
Their 15-year marriage was, in a word, tumultuous. Her partner battled addiction and Shriver co-dependency as a result.
“I was trying to midwife my husband’s career,” she says. “I wanted him to be successful, and be the woman behind the man. Unfortunately, I married a self-sabotaging alcoholic.”
She kept it hidden from the outside world, however, working corporate spokesperson gigs, building out her network of well-known friends and power players — even serving as PR director for the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills for two and a half years.
“I chameleoned to every situation. I’m very good at compartmentalizing,” she says. “I didn’t even know I was broken until the shit really hit the fan after the marriage.”
The stress built up and accumulated in her body. It wasn’t just the marriage, but the unresolved pain associated with her parents’ deaths. She discovered the work of David Berceli, who created something called Tension Stress and Trauma Release (TRE) exercises to work with conflict and disaster survivors in the developing world. In short, we tremble when we get scared or feel shock. Rather than see that as a symptom of that fear, Berceli proposed that therapeutic trembling was the body’s way of dealing with it and developed exercises to bring forth the tremors on demand — the way Shriver did after falling on her tailbone.
Rather than meds or the therapist’s couch, “it’s understanding that the body holds the story,” she says. “Because the story gets locked in there.”
It’s been seven years since she made the realization, and now Shriver is not only certified in TRE but has adapted it for use in developed nations, working with developmental, as opposed to shock, trauma. She teaches mindfulness and movement tools — all evidence-based — that help people better understand and control their nervous system. Her socially-minded startup Lumos Transforms counts doctors, nurses, school teachers and administrators, coaches and social workers as students.
In her private practice, she often treats careerists who have ignored years and years of built-up stress and are looking for ways to treat it. “Chronic stress kills us, and we’re all stuck with the chronic stress button on.”
So what do the exercises do?
“They will have agency over their body’s reaction to stress,” she says. “They will be able to bring themselves back to the part of the nervous system where health, wellness and joy live — and they’ll be able to access this more often.”
Shriver makes no bones about the fact that her own transformation wouldn’t have been possible without all the trauma that preceded it. Her own story is vital, she says, in helping others overcome.
“You either break down or you break through,” she told me. “If they’ve processed it and come out the other side, that’s what post-traumatic growth is. I don’t know anyone who’s come through trauma successfully who hasn’t seen it as the reason for their being.”