Building body awareness

You can better manage your stress by increasing your awareness of what your body is experiencing

fight_or_flight squareIf I asked you, “How aware are you of your body?”, you’d likely give me a strange look and wonder what the question even means.  Understanding how our bodies react to our environment is a critical skill, but unfortunately most of us are ill-equipped to perform it.  Body awareness is so important because it’s the first step to reversing the ever-negative, ever-building momentum that stress has on our lives.  While you might have given me a strange look earlier, I bet you’d nod eagerly if I asked, “Would you like to learn a simple tool to manage stress?”

There is an abundance of literature about how poorly the human body reacts to the stressors of modern life.  As Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of Smart Brains, recently described in the Huffington Post, “Under stress, the brain’s limbic system – the areas responsible for emotions, motivation, breathing, heart rate, and hormone production – triggers an alarm that activates a fight-or-flight response, increasing the production of adrenaline and cortisol, which together work to speed heart rate, increase metabolism and blood pressure.”

Our brains react the same way to psychological stressors like embarrassment and fear as they do to actual physical threats, like seeing a snake on the ground.  In situations when we feel our safety is at risk, the neocortex (the part of the brain that allows for speech and rational thought) shuts down.  This is an appropriate, life-saving response when you see a snake in your path, because it allows your natural reflexes to take over. But it can be a real problem when you react with a rapid, preprogrammed response in a complex interpersonal situation.  In a stressed state of mind, your cognitive options are limited, so it’s not uncommon to later regret what you’ve said or done!

In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicine, there’s a saying that “like attracts like.” We all see this phenomenon in the familiar stress cycle, where stress drives a response which usually brings more stress, and so on.   One of the best tools I’ve found for breaking this cycle is developing the skill of body awareness.

To get started, choose two times of the day, say 10am and 2pm, to stop whatever you’re doing and observe and write down all the things you’re feeling in that moment, both physical and emotional.  You might notice that your shoulders are hurting, that you’re thirsty, that you’re feeling irritated, or that you’re happy.  Notice whatever it is you’re feeling without judgment.  This simple act of pausing and paying attention to yourself can make you aware of what is literally going on below your nose, and what you find may surprise you.

Once you’ve observed your physical and emotional body, the next step is to choose one action you can take right then and there to nurture yourself.  If you observed you were thirsty, your action could be to get a glass of water.  If you observed irritation, ask yourself what you could do in the next 2-5 minutes to make yourself feel better.  You could take a walk or text a loved one.  Focus on an action you can take right then, not something you “should do” at some point in the future.  These small actions take care of your needs and can make a big contribution to your well-being over time.

As you practice regular body awareness check-ins, you’ll start to notice – in the moment – when your body and mind have gone into “fight or flight” mode.  And, just as importantly, you’ll have an easier time bringing yourself back to that better, un-stressed version of yourself more quickly.

What have you noticed today?