Many of my conversations in my consulting room involve exploring our feelings. It may sound a truism, but many of us don’t actually realise that we feel them – ie they reside in the body. We don’t just have feelings in our heads, although so many of us end up divorced from our bodies as we pelt through life, with the content of our mind getting in the way of things.
For example, anxiety is an extremely common problem in my consulting room, and this is an experience that most can describe in physical, visceral terms – tension in muscles, gut problems, headaches, jaw ache, even chest pains. At worst, our breathing can become shortened, and we can feel light-headed, or even dizzy. At worst, people can even feel so numb that they don’t even feel they are in their body at all.
All of these symptoms of anxiety mean that our threat system is ‘online’ and armed and ready to keep us safe from a perceived danger. Anxious thoughts, fuelling our ‘fight or flight’ messaging, mean that these perceived dangers are often imagined, and inflated, ones – eg If I don’t get this piece of work done, I’ll get sacked or everyone will think I’m a loser. Our pesky thinking brain (the newest in evolutionary terms) does wonders in creating dangers and sustaining them.
Mindfulness and other meditative practices can be successful interventions for a range of unpleasant experiences – depression and anxiety included. But it may well be that initially approaching our ‘threat system’ with a ‘mind practice’ is too tall an order. Using the body first may be more helpful in an effort to soothe and calm down an intense hyper-arousal like anxiety can provoke. I’d be a fool not to address the body in therapy, and while I’m not a practitioner in bodywork, I generally encourage anyone to take up physical exercises alongside my work – yoga and meditation included. Even simple grounding exercises may be worth pursuing before heading to a meditation mat – feeling our feet on the ground, filling our belly with a proper nourishing breath.
We are far better equipped to pull away from our thoughts once we are effectively plugged into our body.