We live our lives in our heads. That’s not surprising. After all, it’s our ability to think that makes us stand out from animals. And for better or worse, we’re making ample use of this unique ability.
Yet an unfortunate side-effect of this is that most of us live our lives from the shoulder up. We’ve completely lost sight of the fact that we all carry a body around with us. We’re not in touch with our bodies at all. Some people do so to a point of not even being able to identify basic emotions (= that’s called alexithymia).
But even if you’re not in such an extreme condition, this disconnect comes with a great disadvantage: It impedes your ability to cope with stress, anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions. You need body awareness to cope with these. And here’s why:
1. Catching moments of stress
In order to deal with stress, the very first step is to recognize when you feel stressed. It’s necessary to become aware of the fact that you’re anxious. But that’s easier said than done. And body awareness comes in handy here.
Let’s take a quick step back. Every emotion is made up of three different components: thoughts, behaviors and changes in the body (which we notice as feelings). So, it’s obvious that we can notice stress by observing these three types of symptoms:
Catching anxious thoughts is notoriously hard. We are usually so lost in thought that it can take hours until we become truly aware that we’re anxious and that we have the power to change that. Behaviors are difficult to spot, too. Nail biting, checking Facebook, grabbing another snack — we do all of these things without much deliberation. We do them on autopilot.
Much easier is it to notice anxiety (and other negative emotions) in the body. That’s because emotions express themselves as sensations. Some are subtle yet others grab our attention. A racing heart, a queasy feeling in the stomach or tightness in the chest — they are all part of our body’s innate stress response.
2. Seeing emotions more clearly
The next skill is the ability to see emotions more clearly. If you are able to accurately perceive emotions in the body, you learn where they come from and how they affect your behavior. (Emotional awareness is also necessary for skill #3 which we’ll cover next.)
In particular, there are two qualities that influence your ability to perceive emotions: resolution and vividness. Take a look at the two pictures below and you’ll notice that they are different from each other in two important ways.
- The resolution of the pic on the lefthand side is much higher. We’re able to detect a lot more detail.
- The left pic is brighter and has more contrast and that’s why it’s much more vivid for us.
We need both of these qualities if we want to perceive emotions clearly. Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s most popular mindfulness teacher, explains it like this:
“Firstly, we can increase the resolution (or precision) at which we perceive our emotions, so we can see emotions the moments they arise and cease, and subtle changes in between. Secondly, we increase their brightness and contrast so we can see them more vividly than before. This combination will give us very useful high-fidelity information about our emotional life.”
3. Learning acceptance
Thirdly, you need body awareness in order to learn not to run away from feelings. At first glance, this might sound ridiculous. How could anyone run away from one’s feelings? They are part of us, after all. But we human beings do have this tendency — no matter how hopeless — to avoid uncomfortable emotions.
And that’s where body awareness comes in. Once we’re able to spot and clearly observe unpleasant feelings in our body, we are then able to allow the feeling to just be there. This may sound a bit esoteric but there are a lot of skeptical scientists out there who support this idea. For example, a recent study at Berkeley summarized its findings like this:
"Overall, these results suggest that individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.”
Only if we recognize and clearly experience the changes in our bodies are we able to truly allow them. And once we are able to accept, those unpleasant feelings reduce automatically. It’s like the trailblazing psychologist and therapist Carl Rogers wrote:
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
So it’s not as if there is no change at all. It’s just that acceptance needs to come first. And then we can change.
How to do it
Once you develop the capacity to connect with body sensations and learn to allow them, they lose a lot of their power over us. One of those exercises that can help with that is called Observe-Breathe-Allow. Why not give it a try?
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