It would be nice if we had sensors programmed into our human bodies, like the technology programmed into many of the newest cars, to tell us when we are becoming too stressed, or too angry, when we need to take a break, replenish or refuel. It used to be that we just had sensors on our cars when the fuel tank was low. Now newer cars have sensors for everything from alerting us when we are swerving out of our lane to letting us know when we are becoming too close to the vehicle in front of us. These warning signals help to keep us safe and in control and avert problems.
In essence, we do have these signals and sensors within our bodies and brains. The problem is that we are often disconnected from these sources of information, or we ignore the signals that are there. We are also often not taught how to pay attention to these inner signals and how to “read” them.
Our bodies offer us a wealth of information, and learning to pause and become more mindful and aware of this information can go a long way towards helping us use these signals to our advantage, to help us improve our health and well-being.
- When I work with my patients I sometimes like to have them think about a thermometer, where 1 represents feeling calm and relaxed, and 10 represents their highest level of stress. If you’d like, you can do this for yourself now, drawing a simple thermometer on a piece of paper, or visualizing one. Now, at the bottom of the thermometer, representing when you tend to experience calmness, take a moment to notice how that feels in your body. You might try to call up that feeling in your body now to get a felt sense of it. Some people describe feeling at ease, or notice a lightness, openness, relaxed muscles, or other sensations of well-being. After you make note of body sensations that represent a 1 or 2 on your thermometer, take a moment to put some words to that feeling state. For some people it might be “relaxed”, or “calm”, or “peaceful.” Now, take another moment to reflect on what kind of thoughts are going through your mind when you are in a relaxed and open state of being. Some of my patients have noted their thoughts in this state tend to be in the present, in the here and now. Others have thoughts of being confident and able to handle what is happening in their lives. Some people may have thoughts of gratitude for something good in their life. Finally, notice what behaviors you tend to display when your thermometer is at a 1 or 2. Do you tend to talk gently or lovingly with others, do you tend to do things that are good or nurturing for yourself, do you tend to be productive and focused?
- Now, continue to go up your thermometer, repeating the same exercise with each increasing number. Notice what your body sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviors are when you are at a 5 or 6, and when you are at an 8 or 9. For example, perhaps someone at a 5 or 6 is aware of their shoulders being tight and their breathing more shallow; perhaps they feel slightly on edge, irritable or stressed. They might start to have thoughts such as “How am I going to do this” or “this is going to be a bad day” or they may notice a lot of worry thoughts about things in the future that may or may not happen. They may notice in their behavior the tendency to become snappy around loved ones, or perhaps turn to food for comfort, or have less patience to listen to people. At an 8 or 9 they may experience their heart racing or their face becoming flushed or extreme tension in their bodies; they may feel rage, anger, strong anxiety, overwhelm; they may have irrational thoughts such as “I’ll never get through the day” or “this is a disaster” or “everyone hates me”; and they may yell and scream, or perhaps shut down and withdraw.
- Once you have a sense of your own thermometer, draw a line or put an arrow to represent where you start to enter the “red/danger zone”, when things feel out of control. Somewhere several numbers below that is your “warning light”, that point on your thermometer that alerts you before you go any higher and enter your danger zone. If that warning light number is somewhere around a 5 or 6 (or whatever number it is for you), notice what the corresponding body sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviors are. Those are your internal signals that you can begin to pay attention to more closely going forward, that can alert you that it is important to pause, and do something to help yourself “re-set”. For myself, when I notice tension and heaviness in my chest, feelings of frustration, worry thoughts or negative thinking, and irritability in my behaviors, I know it is important to step away from what I am doing and mindfully breath or meditate for a few minutes to prevent myself from escalating.
- Make a list of some things that work for you, to help you “re-set”, gain perspective, and experience more calm in your body. When we take a few moments to pause and become aware of what we are experiencing, and when we can do so with self-compassion, we create the space to choose our actions from a place of inner wisdom and knowing rather than from an unhelpful place of automatic reactivity.
Unfortunately our internal system takes a bit more practice than our car technology, which works automatically; however, learning to bring mindful attention to your body sensations, emotions, thoughts and feelings throughout the day, learning to become an observer of yourself in these ways, can play an important role in catching your stress response before it escalates into the “danger zone.”