Anxiety, pain, and listening to your body

One thing I hear a lot when I talk about listening to your body is that people don’t want to.  They have pain, or they have anxiety, or they have mobility difficulties, and they’d sooner be distracted from their bodies then pay attention to them.  Some studies even show that being distracted can reduce pain, and that focusing the brain elsewhere causes opioid release.

As I’ve written elsewhere, however, it’s also being found that chronic pain can be caused by the brain’s inaccurate assessment of damage in parts of the body.  The more I read and experience, the more I believe that it’s not listening to your body that’s the problem.  It’s listening too much to the brain, and ignoring the body.

The brain is a magnificent thing; it is rewiring itself all the time, and can be trained, tricked, and reprogrammed.  Your body, though, always tells the truth – at least, it tells the truth as it experiences it.  Too often, we allow our brains to override our bodies, and our bodies are then responding to and behaving from inaccurate messages.  Or, our bodies are telling us something over and over again, and we ignore it: we have a bad feeling about someone but we choose to trust them anyway; we feel our knees start to ache but keep running until we injure ourselves.

Anxiety is a particularly difficult problem to untangle when it comes to listening to your body.  Often, anxiety attacks will involve physiological symptoms that are highly unpleasant, and sufferers may find that bringing more attention to those symptoms exacerbates them rather than allowing them to fade.  However, I recall something program head Joe Weldon said often in our training, which is that psychology often focuses on the “anxiety” part of an anxiety attack, when what the body is experiencing is the “attack” part.  Our hearts pound, we sweat, our vision narrows, our limbs may go slack, our mouths go dry – the body is having a fight-or-flight response: it thinks it’s being attacked.

Trying to focus on and dialog with our anxious feelings can be a losing battle: we may say to our bodies, “Calm down!  There’s nothing wrong!  You’re not in danger!  Just relax!”  This doesn’t tend to work; our bodies respond by redoubling the feelings.  I see this on the table all the time, especially with newer clients.  They may notice, say, that their shoulder is tight and feels “on alert.”  I say, “If that shoulder had a voice, what would it say?”  And it says, “I’m scared,” or “I’ve got to protect you,” or “F— off.”  “What do you say back to it?” I pursue.  The client says, “Relax!” or “Calm down!”  Again, this tends to work about as well as telling a tantruming toddler to stop crying.  Listening to your body and conversing with it is different from trying to override your body with your brain.

In fact, I often think of the body as kind of like a toddler.  It’s pre-verbal, it speaks in symbols and colors and sounds and sensations.  It responds authentically and immediately to its internal and external environment.  It’s impolite and spontaneous and lives in the now.  It’s the home of our emotions, which move through it as full-body experiences.  As we grow older, our brains increasingly control things like rational thought, polite societal behavior, appropriateness, speech – and therefore, lying.  Meanwhile, the body continues to do its simple, truthful thing, and we tend to ignore or override it as much as possible.

The way to calm a toddler – and the way to calm your body – is not to tell it it’s wrong and to relax already, but to listen to it, mirror it, show it you understand and are listening.  It’s simply giving the same courtesy to our bodies as we would to a trusted friend or beloved.  Be there, listen, pay attention, empathize.

When someone on the table is having tension, nervousness, anxiety, or really any sensation that could be unpleasant, I always have them bring their attention to it and just listen.  It’s true that often, the first thing that happens is that the sensation intensifies, and that’s okay.  Sometimes there’s emotion that needs to move, and paying attention to it and giving it space helps it to move through and out, so the person can be free of it.  Sometimes it needs to be talked to: acknowledged, normalized, asked what it needs.  Sometimes the body needs strange things: you may receive a mental image of something that seems to make no sense, and then have to imagine giving yourself that thing.  (Like a bridge, or a hot dog, or a blade of grass, or a hammer.)  The body speaks in symbols and dreams, and interacting with it that way can affect real change.  I have never known someone not to get at least some relief when they bring their attention and empathy to their bodies in this way.

The number of people who hate their bodies, or have difficult relationships with them, or don’t give themselves the same love and respect that they give even total strangers, is alarming.  Increasing your body awareness, being gentle with yourself, responding to your body’s needs with empathy and understanding – all of these things are benefits of Rubenfeld Synergy, and things that need to be brought to the world at large.

Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

4 thoughts on “Anxiety, pain, and listening to your body

  1. (nods)
    One thing I learned the slow difficult way about trauma, that I wish we could all instead learn the fast simple way, was that so much of my reaction to it isn’t about pain but about the memory of pain, the expectation of pain, the fear of pain.

    And that surprisingly often, it was only after I made sometimes-extreme efforts to attend to the source of pain that I realized, sheepishly, that it didn’t actually hurt in the present at all.

    “Jagged shards of memory dissolve
    with fresh regard, and wounds
    so long avoided prove
    nothing but faded scars.”

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