Standing here facing a sea of expectant faces, I notice my hands are shaking and they continue to do so during the first six slides. My body is feeling anxious but curiously I'm not worrying about this presentation.
I am so intrigued by my body's reaction that I share it with the attendees at this Taste of Mindfulness Lunch and Learn. Using myself to demonstrate how stress impacts the body.
But what was going on with me and why did it stop after the first few slides?
The autonomic nervous system
The human body is made up of various systems that keep it alive. You will be aware of your circulatory system and likely the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
What you may be less aware of – or perhaps not know its name – is the peripheral nervous system. One part of this system is the autonomic nervous system which controls bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, breathing rate and temperature (PubMedHealth).
It is described as having two states – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. These are sometimes termed flight/fight response (or stress response) and rest/digest response (alternatively feed and breed). A way to remember them is that the sympathetic response “sympathises” with the external environment; it responds to situations and readies the body for immediate action.
When a threat is registered, the fight/flight response primes us for survival. You may recognise these changes in your body and associate them with perhaps feeling nervous, excited or stressed.
Increased heartbeat (pounding in chest)
Decreased bloodflow to our skin
Increased bloodflow to our muscles
Switched off digestive process (butterflies)
Clearly at the beginning of that lunch and learn session my brain had determined I was unsafe and my autonomic nervous system had switched to fight/flight. Ten minutes in and the survival response had been dialled down and I was back in rest/digest mode – a relaxed state. The internal panic was likely switched off as safety cues were unconsciously observed and interpreted (engaged attendees, smiling faces, laughter)
Stephen Porges (2018) calls this internal non-voluntary response to a situation – neuroception. I may consciously see one thing but my brain is making decisions and responding at a different, faster level – the physical one.
Feeling what the body feels
We in the West tend to view the body as no more than a vehicle for our brain that we should fuel and look after so that it lasts. I don’t know when this started but I tend to blame Descartes with his “I think therefore I am” separating the mind from the body.
Yet how can we say this when we feel lumps in our throats or butterflies in our stomachs as responses to external stimuli? Indeed, we can find ourselves flooded with sensations; the autonomic system responding outwith our conscious control.
We have learned to associate such physical feelings with a particular emotion; our rational thinking part of the brain attempts to fit a story around the sensations to justify or make sense of them. We might say we are angry with another when really it is a fight/flight response that is being triggered in the body due to feeling unsafe through something they said.
This doesn’t mean the sympathetic system is bad, wrong or no longer valuable. We need to know when we truly are at risk so that we can take safety actions. However the alarm bell often rings when we do not need to run or fight.
This is when we need to recognise the system for what it is – an internal ally that warrants our attention but is not always the decision-maker.
Reconnecting with our body
Mindfulness teaches us how to observe our thoughts and sensations in the body. This is key as they are connected within us. Thoughts can trigger chemical and hormonal reactions in the body that we might feel as increased heartbeat, butterflies in the stomach or shaking hands and such sensations might set off stories in our heads creating a feedback loop.
Practicing the Body Scan meditation can help you sense into your body.
During the practice, you move the spotlight of attention to different parts of the body. Learning to deliberately engage and disengage attention. Training yourself to register sensations but to not react to them. Allowing things to be as they are. Taking ourselves out of our head (thinking) down into the body (sensing).
By regularly practicing the Body Scan we reconnect with our inner selves. Learning what is normal for us so that we can detect changes as they happen – butterflies in the stomach, increased heart rate, sweating – and in that moment, we can check-in and ask:
What is going on for me right now?
What am I thinking? What am I feeling?
What are my bodily sensations?
In taking a witnessing stance where we can observe the body’s response, we also create some distance between ourselves and the emotion that we may associate with those sensations.
You might try naming what's going on either out-loud or to yourself – I feel sensations of anger or I am feeling uncomfortable or I feel a change in my body. Notice the difference between the first phrase (I feel sensations of anger) and the words "I am angry". In the witnessing stance you are just the same, it’s just you are experiencing a sensation that you call anger.
Taking the time to make such statements also creates a pause where we can choose the most appropriate response. This can be just enough to stop a negative narrative or heat of the moment reaction.
And if we have particular stories that we tell ourselves when experiencing particular sensations – mine tend to be around rejection – we can self-soothe and dial down the stress response by reminding ourselves that we are telling ourselves our favourite threat story.
Since that Taste of Mindfulness Lunch and Learn, I am more aware of the subtle changes in my system and taking regular internal soundings. Body scanning for sensations; befriending my alarm bell.
Does this resonate with you?
You might also find naming the autonomic nervous system Amy useful - here's why.
Porges, S 2018, Connectedness as a Biological Imperative: Understanding Trauma Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory. Healing Trauma Summit. June 2018. Lecture
PubMedHealth. Autonomic Nervous System (Involuntary Nervous System) [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US), National Center for Biomedical Information; 2006 [cited 2018 Jul 01].