The body senses (activates) before the mind. Our bodies can tell us a lot about what is going on – like what we need – and signals us to take action. When we are hungry, tired, or thirsty, our bodies send us signals to let us know. Whether that’s our stomach grumbling or a passive yawn, our brain has received these cues from the body, and our mind tells us to do something about it.
Listening to our bodies when we have a physical need is hardwired in us, and easy to identify. But do we have the same hardwired signals when we are in psychological distress? The answer is yes.
When we feel sad, angry, anxious, surprised, embarrassed, shameful or any of the other feelings, we sense it somewhere in our bodies first. We were raised to recognize and act on physical signals – hunger, exhaustion, going to the bathroom – but not what to do when we experience physical cues when we are in psychological distress.
One of the first things I ask when someone tells me how they are feeling is, “Where is that coming up for you in your body? I often get the answer, “What do you mean?” or “I have no idea.”
Other times, people immediately tell me where it’s registering for them physically. In many cases, they’re clients that experience anxiety. I believe this is because the physical sensations we experience when we have anxiety are so intense it’s hard not to notice. Chest pain, throat tightening, and churning stomachs are just a few common ones. It’s like a blow horn going off: the body’s stress response being activated.
When we are stressed, sense danger, or perceive a threat, our bodies react. Stress hormones are released causing our blood pressure and heart rate to increase. Our blood actually rushes from our heart to our limbs, helping us get ready to either run or fight. In prehistoric ages, people would peer out of their caves to check for animals. This is a biological response we need to keep us safe. And while we don’t really see wild animals lurking very often, our phisicialocal reactions are still just as important to listen to as they were to cavemen.
Nowadays we are under so much stress and there is so much information coming at us all the time, it’s hard for our brains to decipher what we should pay attention to, whether danger is lurking, and if we need to take action. This means our systems are constantly activated, and we may be in a heightened response more often than not. Our bodies (and central nervous systems!) have minimal time to rest.
When we aren’t doing well, our bodies tell us. We just need to listen. Noticing the physical signs when you are distressed is actually one way to self regulate.
Another important thing to know about our stress response is: when it’s in action, we can’t access the part of our brain that helps us problem solve, plan, and make decisions. I’m guessing you’ve had those moments when you are experiencing intense emotions, and you can’t think clearly about what to do. When this happens, it can make us even more distressed. It is best to forget “why” something is happening and regulate your body first. And calming yourself physically can interrupt our difficult feelings, swirling thoughts, and our stress response.
You can get good at listening to your body and figuring out what you need in those moments of distress.
How Can I Help Myself in the Moment?
Take a day and focus on listening to your body. Be present and just notice what is happening in your body as you go about your day including when you are engaging with others or sitting at work or in class. (mind body scan)
If you’re having trouble picking up on physical cues, try this exercise: Sit quietly with your headphones. Put on your favorite song and see what physical sensations come up in your body. Now change the song and see what shifts.
A good exercise for when you are in distress: Notice what happens in your body. Is your heart rate increasing? Are you having pain or discomfort in a certain area of your body? Are you sweating, your fists tightening, or face flushed?
Now, look around: is there really something dangerous lurking? Chances are, the answer is no. Tell yourself (or reassure yourself,) there is no danger. Now, regulate your body. Try 5-2-8 breathing:
1) Focus your eyes on one spot or close them and close your mouth.
2) Now inhale through your nose for five counts
3) Hold the inhale at the top for two counts
4) Exhale through your nose for eight counts,
5) Slightly restricting the back of your throat, making a sound like the ocean.
6) Repeat for three to four minutes and feel the rhythm of your breath. I like to visualize the waves in the ocean while breathing. The exhale is key in calming the body. Don’t forget to count.
Another option is bilateral stimulation. To put it simply, bilateral stimulation activates both sides (or hemispheres) of the brain, and research shows that it calms our body’s stress response. Patterned, rhythmic sounds, tones, and movement can soothe the body. Grab your airpods and listen to bilateral music (It’s even available on Apple Music.) This will de-escalate your body quickly.
Or try some bilateral movement, alternately tapping each foot or butterfly hugs (using alternate hands to tap alternate shoulders.) Even running or walking works because it stimulates movement from both sides of the brain and body. Any movement is always helpful in calming the mind and body. And make sure you’re doing 5-2-8 breathing while practicing bilateral stimulation.
How Can You Get Support From Others?
Co-regulating is a real thing that can make all the difference, helping us feel like we don’t have to deal with life all by ourselves. When your body is in a stress response, another person reassuring you that things will be ok can feel grounding. A simple hug or holding your hand can feel comforting in these difficult moments. Ask them to lead the breathing techniques for you; counting out loud can help you regulate.
And remember, let your mind be the student and your body be the teacher.
Caring about YOU and your mental health,
Read the next blog in the series: Listen: Create Space for Your Feelings