We have a body. We know we do. But how aware are we of it, day to day, moment to moment? If we happen to be a dancer, a yogi, an actor or an athlete we may be naturally more attuned to our bodily sensations during the day. Back in the day before I had children, when I used to practice three hours of yoga a day, it was easy to feel what was happening physically and what I needed to do to adjust my body. Align my shoulders, strengthen a core muscle group or be less forceful with my in-breath, whatever the physical issue was, I was more aware of it. Whenever we train or focus on something systematically we naturally become more attuned to it. It’s like learning a language or an instrument. We know that neurons that fire together wire together. We know that our brain has plasticity and can change. However it takes effort. Especially if we’re out practice.
In our society we often either don’t use our body much, living seemingly unaware of its existence, or we become aware of it only when we are doing something physical, such as as exercise. Perhaps if we were immersed in specialised conditions where the aim was to train our attention on the body such as a meditation retreat we may be more aware of our somatic nuances in the midst of daily life. It’s difficult however, for most of us who live in busyness and in contact with constant environmental stimuli to remain observant. It’s a challenge to feel, let alone mindfully track what is occurring in our bodies whilst immersed in the buzz of work, family life and relationships. There are not many of us who are attuned at a more subtle level to our bodies, and yet, every moment of every day, we embody universes of complexity at a microscopic level- there is so much going on, so quickly – take for example a heated discussion we may have with our partner, we are in the middle of an interaction and suddenly we don’t like what our partner has just said and wham! We suddenly feel threatened and find ourselves in a stress response, our heart rate suddenly increases, our breath shortens, adrenaline and cortisol release, we don’t even realise, we start screaming or walking out of the room or rolling our eyes in contempt- we have not noticed the flooding in our body and yet we are driven by it, we act out from this release of stress hormones thinking a particular set of thoughts induced by our aroused physiology. We may not notice that the narrative that plays out in our minds when we are triggered is linked to what is happening in our body. Interestingly and predictibly, when our heart rate goes down and our adrenaline and cortisol are reabsorbed in our system we start thinking different thoughts, the story changes, induced by a calm body.
Self-regulation is not just the domain of meditation masters, we can learn to calm our physiology down and have more control over it by how we pay attention to it and interact with it mentally. We can learn to do this (with practice and consistent effort) in vivo, in the heat of the moment. We don’t need to wait until we are in the ideal conditions of a silent meditation retreat. Being observant gives us more scope to make thoughtful decisions in how we want to respond to an increased heart rate rather than being at the mercy of our reactivity- there are many different responses we could choose from, we could become aware of being triggered and decide to turn the focus back on our body and calm ourselves down by slowing our breath down, we could take a minute out of the interaction and return to it once we have calmed ourselves down, we could see the humour in our shared humanity and crack a joke. Bringing the process to attention is what gives us the choice to do something different.
Calming ourselves down in the midst of our stress response is not just good for our health and our immune systems it’s also a way to affect our important relationships with calm. Our partner or other person in the interaction will respond differently to us if we react to them by attacking, defending or withdrawing rather than if we stay calm and respond thoughtfully. We can become contagious with calm. Just as anger and fear are contagious, so is calm.
Becoming aware of our stress response in the heat of the moment and choosing to do something more constructive for ourselves and the person we are interacting with, is part of the work of therapy.