Ask Your Body
Wherever you are on your journey, it will eventually become difficult to fully accept yourself and play to your strengths if you can’t hear what your body is telling you.
The world doesn’t really want us to pause and listen to our bodies.
If we did, we might feel how truly exhausted we are and begin to, ever so subtly at first and then more significantly, push back on pressure to constantly be productive. This idea is more deeply explored in a new book by Nap Bishop Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry.
While we all live with stress, some of us experience it to greater degree on a more persistent level. Stress is not altogether bad. It’s a warning sign - there’s something to notice and address.
If stress is ongoing, though, it impacts your physical, mental, and emotional health. This could look like chronic physical illness or day-to-day challenges like headaches, sleep issues, anxiety, depression, lack of focus, menstrual/hormonal cycle changes, etc.
Yale Medicine defines chronic stress as: “A consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time
Notice that definition doesn't say consistent pressure, but a "consistent sense of feeling pressured." It is about your perception, not the observable truths.
When we are feeling pressured, our nervous system goes haywire.
Many neurodivergent folks operate at a baseline with some activation, which isn’t always something we can just choose to turn off. The ADHD, Autistic, OCD, PTSD, etc neurotypes can make this especially challenging.
If we are overwhelmed and stressed, we cannot care for ourselves properly.
If we don’t care for ourselves properly, we cannot recover from stress.
When we cannot recover from stress, we make mistakes, become exhausted, and eventually burnout.
I’m not just talking about on the job, though that’s a crucial environment, but also in our personal lives. We cannot be everything to everyone all the time. Our bodies will not allow it.
So, what can we do about it?
When we experience something stressful, scary, or upsetting, our body sends us signals. These signals are FEELINGS -- physical sensations in our body.
When the stressor goes away and you feel relieved, that isn’t the end of the story.* Our body’s alert system sent off a signal and flooded us with cortisol and adrenaline. When we don’t complete the stress cycle to help our body feel safe again, we end up storing that emotion and experience in our body.
What that means is the next time something happens either just like that stressor or even seems like it could be like it, we’ll find our body responding similarly as if it is happening again.
*The book Burnout by the Negroni sisters is a great resource about the stress cycle.
I got in trouble a lot growing up for talking in class. I even had a teacher once say to me in front of my whole 7th grade math class, “You don’t have the grades to be talking in this class.” It was humiliating. In fact, I told the principal and was moved to another class.
Since incidents like that were not processed with me by a trusted adult, I internalized the message that talking when you’re supposed to be working is not just bad, it’s shameful.
I found myself in adulthood feeling on edge in work environments if I was chatting with others for more than a minute.
My body was holding onto this experience and protecting me from professional embarrassment by keeping me isolated from colleagues.
I never wanted to be seen by leadership talking to others, because they’d likely (rightly) assume I was messing around and wasting time and should be fired. That may sound extreme, but deep down that’s basically the belief I held.
During this time in my career, there was a huge push for coworkers to collaborate and bounce ideas off each other. The 'open concept' office was rising in popularity, and I was struggling.
I got feedback that I was not engaging in team building enough at work and after hours. Unpacking this could have focused on the logistical barriers. I could have created a solution that involved agreeing to go to every happy hour I was invited to. This would not have addressed what was going on, and likely would've created more stress and less engagement in the office.
Ultimately, I needed a breakthrough on my perspective about socializing in productive settings. Identifying that perspective came through my body, not my mental assessment.
Connecting to what the body has to communicate is like a shortcut in problem solving.
When I notice discomfort or emotion shifting in a client, I invite them to explore it because I know that our dilemmas are rarely just what we can assess cognitively.
Somatic, or body-based, therapies are incredibly effective at supporting people in processing stress and trauma, because our bodies hold information and memories that we cannot always access just by talking it out.
I’ve seen many neurodivergent people experience a shift in the intensity and frequency of their rejection sensitivity through these body-focused therapies, like Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.
In body-based coaching, which is not therapy, we welcome input from the body on the goals we set and the methods we’ll use to achieve them.
The physical sensations we experience as we move through the world are wise messengers that can help us problem solve, process new information, and regulate our nervous system.
Nervous System Regulation
Let's talk for a minute about nervous system regulation. this is a great way to start using your body’s wisdom to support you in the moment.
When your feelings and nervous system become dysregulated, many people will encourage you to take deep breaths. Breathing is absolutely effective in calming the nervous system but not a surefire solution. In fact, some trauma survivors are triggered by breathwork.
Sometimes we need to activate our bodies to return to a grounded state.
Some of my favorite ways to process stress is to do a quick check in with my body. I’ll ask myself what I feel like doing — yes, I tune into my instincts rather than my to-do list or shoulds.
If the answer is run away, throw something, or some other large muscle movement, then I’ll do something that engages those.
A simple nervous system reset is to run in place as hard as you can for as long as you can, repeat as necessary.
The incredible gift of working with your body is that it is cumulative. As you begin to check in with yourself and find ways to work with what’s coming up, it will become easier to access it when stress is really high or before it mounts.
When I work through small upsets, I’m training my brain to identify my dysregulation and helping my nervous system to resolve it more swiftly.
I’d like to demonstrate what I mean by all this “tune into your body.” I invite you to try this exercise and then share in the comments what the experience was like for you.
The goal of this exercise is to simply tune into what your body is experiencing. There is no need to jump to a mental assessment of it.
Relax in your seat - get comfortable - close your eyes
Take two deep breaths that fill your belly entirely and exhale slowly to the count of 8.
Think of something that frustrated you recently — maybe someone misjudged you, criticized your effort, or just slowed you down. Perhaps your car broke down, your kids/pets wouldn’t cooperate, or you got mad at yourself for making a mistake.
Try to recall the feeling of being upset. What sensations were in your body as you became frustrated? No need to name feelings, just notice sensations. Was your heart racing? Was there heaviness in your chest? Tightness in your jaw?
Paying attention to that sensation and staying relaxed - let's get curious about it - can you describe it? Does it have a shape, a color, or perhaps a temperature? Where is it located? Spend a minute focusing on the sensation in your body.
Thinking back to that frustrating experience now, what do you notice about the feeling in your body? Did it change in any way?
If you’re feeling open, you can ask it what its job is — how is it trying to help?
The important thing is to try to remain judgement free. You are bearing witness for your body, not trying to analyze and strategize. You can do this in a matter of a few minutes or spend an extended period of time getting to know this feeling.
As we practice paying attention to our body, we will begin to partner with it to manage our distractions, urges, and emotions. When we're stuck, our body can lead to breakthroughs and meaningful solutions, it need only to be asked.