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How to listen to your body

  • October 12, 2020

I’ve spoken often about how we feel emotions as physical sensations in the body, and how powerful it can be to pinpoint exactly where you’re feeling something, and the physical impact that emotion is having. I’ve done this practice for many years in therapy, and it always gives me powerful clues about what might be lying underneath big emotions like anger or anxiety, and points me in the right direction to acknowledge and address them.

“I feel like my throat has a big lump, and I can’t swallow.” This tells me there is something I really need to say, but haven’t been able to express it.

“It’s like a cage around my heart, squeezing me tight.” This tells me I’m feeling vulnerable and exposed, and pulling my defenses up to protect myself.

“It’s sitting like a lead ball in my stomach. I feel heavy and sick.” This often indicates anxiety or fear around a close personal relationship—a fear I am somehow failing them.

These specific instances and cues are unique to me, but there really is something to identifying where and how you’re feeling your feelings in your physical body. Still, every time I talk about it, people ask me where to start. “HOW can I figure out where I feel this, because every time I try, I just feel generally icky all over?”

It’s hard to sit in discomfort, especially if we’ve spent years (decades?) disconnected from our physical body as the result of trauma, diet culture, or the patriarchy, all of which have taught us that we can’t trust ourselves. It’s also incredibly uncomfortable to both sit in that discomfort AND stay connected to our bodies when we have so much practice numbing or running away with food, drink, sex, Instagram, and other distractions. I certainly felt that way when my therapist first asked me the same questions.

I’m not a therapist, although that would be the best place to begin this practice. But for those of you working on getting in touch with your feelings and your body on your own, here is how I started, with a few tips to help you settle in.

• Start in a comfortable seated position, either on the floor or in a chair.

• Feet on the floor, especially barefoot and outside, can help you feel grounded.

• Closing your eyes can help prevent distraction.

• A few slow belly breaths (try a 5-count inhale, 5-count exhale) can help calm the nervous system before you begin.

• Approach the exercise with curiosity, not judgment. There is no way to get it wrong.

First, allow yourself to sit in the feeling without naming it. As Dr. Vickie Bhatia said in her last Do the Thing podcast, just acknowledge you’re feeling something without pressuring yourself to identify it. “I’m feeling something, and it’s big. I’m just going to acknowledge that, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.”

The next step here is usually spent inside your head, trying to name the emotion—am I sad, angry, anxious, frustrated? This is hard, though, because some of these emotions (like anger) are SO big and so overpowering that they often hide what we’re really feeling beneath them. And frankly, we already spend so much time in “top-down” processing, and there is SO much benefit to be found in somatic “ground-up” work. So we’re going to sidestep our brain for now, and check in with our body instead.

Do a quick scan of your body, and ask yourself where this emotion is coming up for you. You don’t have to be specific, but here are some feelings you might be noticing when you acknowledge that big feeling:

• Heaviness

• Tightness, closed off, or constricted

• Frazzled or buzzing

• Tension or stiffness

• Pain, sharp or dull

• Nauseous, sick, or churning

It might be a flash; a dull sensation in a particular area; or a strong, concentrated feeling. Use your instincts here. Trust yourself.

“I’m having this big emotion right now. Where is this emotion sitting in my body? I notice I feel (this way) in my (this body area or part).”

Sit with that for a moment. Imagine what you’re feeling is landing in your chest. Take a deep breath in, acknowledge the big emotion, and breathe out. Do you feel that land in your chest again, or did it seem to move to another body part? Repeat that a few times, and notice how your body responds every time you sit deeper into that emotion.

Now, take those pieces and put them together. “I’m feeling this in my (body part). It feels like (describe in as much detail as you are able). How could what I’m feeling right now be related to this sensation in my body?” It might even help to use the body parts to describe how you’re feeling. If you feel it in your stomach, you might say, “I feel sick that…” If you feel it in your heart, you might say, “My heart is sinking that…” If you feel it in your muscles, you might say, “I feel tense and defensive about…”

There are no right answers here—just trust that your body WANTS to help you figure out how you’re feeling, how to process it, and how to heal. Trust those messages.

The final step, if you choose, is to ask your body what it needs in this moment to feel heard, supported, and safe. This may feel weird if this process is new, but you may be surprised at what comes up for you. Ask your stomach, heart, or muscles, “What do you need to feel heard, supported, and safe? What could I do or who could I bring in right now, even if it’s just in my imagination, to help you?”

Allow whatever comes up. Sit in it for as long as you need. You may feel like a huge burden has lifted, or you may just feel a bit more clarity or calmness. Regardless, trust that you have begun to reestablish that mind-body connection, and that your body appreciates you checking in and letting it take care of you (and vice-versa). With practice, the process becomes easier, more automatic, and more effective in helping you achieve resolution, closure, or acceptance.

Sending you love in this process, as with everything.


P.S. One caveat— somatic work can be intense. I’ve had drug flashbacks in the middle of a yoga class, and panic attacks at the end of breathwork sessions. If you have a background of unresolved trauma and have not been working with a therapist, even this gentle process of self-inquiry can feel overwhelming and scary. If at any point it becomes too much, please thank your body for keeping you safe, slowly come out of the exercise, and talk to a trusted friend, counselor, or health care provider.

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