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How Listening to Your Body’s Cues Can Help You Manage Stress

There are a few things that happen to me when I’m in the grips of a stressful situation. In my youth I was vaguely aware of these sensations in my body, but never gave them much thought. Even as an emotional Mt. Vesuvius was erupting on the outside, it didn’t occur to me that those sensations had been trying to draw attention to something in advance of my outburst. Had I been paying attention; I would have understood that my body was trying to tell me something!


By clues I mean things like; my throat goes dry as I’m becoming anxious, I feel heat in my head that wasn’t there a moment before, my neck and jaw become tense, and sometimes I find that my mind just blanks out as the emotions come rolling in, leaving me with nothing articulate to say, but a body full of feeling to somehow dissipate.


Even though I haven’t always paid attention, my body has consistently given me distinctive clues about my levels of stress and anxiety.  The more I’ve learned to listen and observe, the more I see and appreciate how these cues are there to help me stay on track.


These clues start out as a whisper. They subtly enter the scene with little fanfare, and I understand how my younger self so easily missed them. But if we can learn to observe ourselves and our reactions without judgement, and without jumping straight into the emotions of a situation, we can set ourselves up for a much healthier reaction to stress and anxiety.


This is part of the power of a mindful approach to life in general. It’s not that you won’t FEEL the same feelings…of course you will.


However, rather than just getting swept away with your dry mouth and hot head, you might give yourself a chance to first notice these subtle clues about your rising emotions...and  make a choice to manage your reaction instead of just going with the flow of anger or anxiety.


Just like in AA, it all begins with ‘awareness’. And the more we can observe ourselves with compassion and understanding, the better equipped we will be to tolerate and manage things like ambiguity, complexity, frustration, or fear.


Our bodies are constantly signaling to us what is going on in our minds and our hearts.  And these signals appear to be universally recognized by humans the world over. In a study from 2013 called ‘Bodily Maps of Emotions’, scientists asked participants to color body maps according to where they felt heat and cold within a given emotion. Though the participants represented a global subset of individuals, the color maps were universal. Emotion registers the same in our bodies, no matter where we are from.


When we experience emotions, our bodies are signaling the incoming storm with changes in blood pressure, heat, distribution of blood flow, etc. An awareness of the physical sensations of emotion gives us a small sense of just how incredibly linked our bodies and emotions truly are. Shame quite literally brings the heat of significant blood flow to the face, eyes and ears, leaving our arms, legs and feet out in the cold.


Happiness is universally understood as a body-wide glow of warmth that touches every aspect of our physical form. Depression is a vacuum of feeling, an absence of warmth and participants colored blue and cold across the body…just as that draining and empty emotion feels.


Our bodies are here to support and nurture us, and they are constantly giving us clues and information to help us make good choices. Learning to observe the different sensations in your body associated with various emotions is a powerful tool in your arsenal of mindful living.


It’s not about trying to control your body’s response to emotion, but rather it is about using this information as you feel emotions rising so that you can make sure you choose your next steps wisely.

As you feel the heat of anger creeping into your face, what will that clue allow you to change about your reaction to the person or situation stimulating that anger? Knowing that the emotion is present and increasing in your body allows for a window of choice. You can either dive headfirst into your reaction, and take your body along for the ride, OR you can pause, reflect and relax into the emotion, allowing your better judgment to guide your next steps.


So what does that look like? Well, if you are observing your physiological (body) responses to any given situation, experiment with this:

  1. Observe/feel the sensation as it arises in your body (i.e. face going hot with anger)
  2. Focus on the awareness of the source of that feeling (what specifically is triggering you?) and approach it with curiosity. Why is that sensation stirring in you? What specifically is causing you to feel that way?
  3.   (This is the most important one, and maybe the hardest). Sit with the discomfort of the physical sensation as you ponder your next steps.
  4. Take action (or not). But do so having listened to the cues from your body, and with the thoughtfulness of someone who has evaluated their option before acting.


Focused awareness and learning a more mindful approach to living is all about creating more productive options for yourself when you are facing difficulties and challenges. Observation and Pause are tools to allow for the space to make better choices, rather than be driven by reactive impulses resulting from emotion.


Knowledge is power, and I promise you that once you begin observing your body in its various states of emotions, you will be amazed at how many options you truly have at your disposal when it comes to your response.


Source: Lauri Nummenmaaa, Enrico Glereana, Riitta Harib, Jari K. Hietanend (2013). “Bodily maps of emotions



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