Emotions are often held within our bodies. So the body is a great place to start in order to tap into our emotions and help us self-regulate. Have you ever had the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Or had goosebumps? Or maybe your stomach turns at a certain smell. These are just a few examples of the ways our bodies communicate needs before our minds even know them.
You may be thinking “but it’s obvious that when my neck hairs go up, I feel creeped out or scared.” Or “of course goosebumps mean I’m cold.” Or “I’ve never liked asparagus so I’m not surprised when my stomach turns at the smell or sight of it!” But keep in mind, at one point you didn’t know these things. And by paying attention to your body, you’ve learned over time what these sensations mean to you. Thereby finding out what you need, or don’t need.
How to access our emotions
Body check-ins can be valuable at any time, but especially as a way to access our emotions and therefore our needs. You can even practice right now to find which emotions might be present by taking the following steps:
- Notice your breathing: Is it rapid or slow? Are your breaths ending in the higher rib area or are they deeper belly breaths?
- Notice your body:
- Is your heart rate rapid, normal, or slow (fit bits, smart watches, or pulse oximeters are helpful with this piece of information)?
- Is there tension in or on your body? Perhaps in your gut, chest, or neck? Or maybe your jaw or fists are clenched. Maybe your shoulders are tensed up to your ears.
- Take a temperature check (literal or figurative). Are you hot or cold? Are you sweating or do you have clammy palms? Maybe your mouth feels really dry.
- How is your eyesight? Has it narrowed to become tunnel vision, a common side effect of anxiety?
- How is your hearing? Have you tuned out what’s around you or are you extra aware of the sounds coming from all directions?
- How is your energy level? Do you feel heavy or fatigued, often tied with depression? Or is there a rush of adrenaline and energy, which can appear with anger, anxiety, or fear? Maybe your body feels sluggish or on the other hand, jittery or skittish.
The power of paying attention
The goal here is mainly just to notice. It might feel “unproductive” or “unhelpful” to simply observe how our emotions show up in our bodies, but in fact, a lot is happening. Body check-ins can help slow us down, remind us to breathe, and ultimately help us gauge how to respond to our own sensations. These sensations are not something to be “fixed” or changed but instead honored and understood. This offers us a way to validate our own experiences with our bodies and the emotions that are arising within them. If we continue to “stuff it down” and reject what our bodies tell us, they tend to find a way to communicate one way or another. Whether that be through breaking down, blowing up, or even getting sick due to stress decreasing our immune function.
Sit with what shows up. Embrace whatever emotions arise. Maybe even greet them in a way that feels authentic. For me, it’s “hi, anxiety, I know you’re there in my chest,” and then see how it responds. By noticing, we can then interact with our inner experience. Just like finding out that we need water from a dehydration headache, we can work towards figuring out that we need to call a friend when we’re feeling discouraged. Or maybe after a big weekend socializing, we actually need some quiet time alone.
Another important piece through this process is trying your best to encounter your emotions without judgment. By existing and showing up, they are simply trying to communicate with you. Beware of the meaning and labels you might attach to your own experience. Instead of “oh I hate feeling this way, I’m such a wimp” instead try “this is really uncomfortable or scary for me… and I feel it in my gut.” Perhaps imagining our emotions as small children in need can aid us in accessing compassion and openness to them. They are crying out for help. Help that we have the ability to provide with time, practice, and even some support.
Our bodies have so much to tell us if we choose to listen to them. What is your body telling you?