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Stress Awareness #2: Body Awareness

body awareness to interpret stress
Body Awareness Helps Us Understand Stress

An important first step in understanding stress - what it means for us, how to interpret it, how to respond to it - is to ground oneself in an awareness of where in one's body one is feeling the stress.

Read that again. Notice that what I said is not about "ideas" or "reasons." The first step in paying transformative attention to stress is to notice what we are feeling in our body, and where we are feeling it.

This attending-to-sensation does a number of things. First, it "grounds" us in the present and what we are experiencing at that moment. We are less drawn out of ourselves - physically, emotionally, cognitively, temporally. We center ourselves, open to acknowledging what is happening right now. This is key to gaining appropriate context, because if the stress we are feeling is disproportionate or excessive or unwarranted by the situation in/by itself, we are probably responding to an implicit memory. (Implicit memories, because they don't have a "timestamp" as having happened "in the past," when they are remembered they are experienced as occurring right now. So they are not recognized as memories, but assumed to be a response to stimuli in the environment.) Paying attention to our feelings both brings us to the present and gives us more information about what the possible source of the stress is (not just what our conscious mind tells us it is). This will be important later, as we seek to respond satisfactorily to the stress.

This also allows us to feel our feelings without having to necessarily accept our feelings as "the truth." Recognizing our feelings as something we are experiencing gives us enough psychic distance from ourselves that we can appreciate the experience without necessarily giving it the final word. We do not want to suppress our feelings, driving them into the unconscious where they affect us without our conscious awareness.

Taking a moment to consciously feel/attend to our bodily sensations also begins the process of regulating ourselves. We will develop the idea of regulation and co-regulation with others in our next post. Suffice it to say here that attending to our feelings shifts us from being taken over or responding purely out of the reactionary response, and moves us toward a more regulated awareness and acceptance of ourselves and our response, allowing us to more easily shift into a wiser, more objective, more helpful mindset.

Identifying what we feel and where we feel it - even or especially in the heat of the moment - normalizes body awareness for everyone. As we develop this skill, perhaps even articulating it out loud and sharing the insight with others (e.g., "Hold on, I am really feeling a tension in my chest right now," or "Give me a second, there is a hot buzzing feeling rising from my shoulders to the back of my head when we started talking about this issue just now. Let me listen to that feeling for a sec.”

This normalization of body awareness invites others around us to attend to themselves more intently. The more we are aware of the emotional reactions taking place in us, the less prone we are to being ruled by them and flying off the handle, speaking unfairly, spiraling down into panic or overload, or making other poor choices.

One more positive benefit of intently feeling our feelings in our body is that the time it takes to really turn our attention inward and be deliberate and conscious about the process, injects a key pause in the escalating action. Just a moment of calm, likely silent reflection is often enough to critically de-escalate a situation (even our own spiraling emotions). Critically, this de-escalation takes place without avoiding the issue or tension, and also without condescension or a power play (which just makes things worse under the guise of ‘making things better’). This is HUGE! Changing things without making someone the bad guy or projecting or protecting oneself is an amazing contribution one can make to any relationship – personal, professional, political, and even (especially?) within oneself.

So, first step in ‘managing’ (or better ‘transforming’) stress is to become aware of how that is manifesting in our body: what are we feeling and where are we feeling it. We will use that information… but that is a future blog post.

Photo credit goes to a very interesting Finnish researcher mapping emotions in the body. Read about them here: Mapping Emotions in the Body: A Finnish Neuroscience Study Reveals Where We Feel Emotions in Our Bodies | Open Culture


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