Your Nervous System
The most important thing to recognize about your nervous system is that it does not ask your permission or your opinion before it does its job to protect you. This is essential in keeping you alive. How so? If your nervous system perceives your repressed emotional world as a greater predator than your physical anxiety, symptom, pain, and so forth, it will lock into protective mode and cause the symptom - trigger the symptom - to divert you from thinking about your repressed emotional world that you have no control over.
Deep in your brain, the hippocampus checks every sensory input it receives and compares it against our memories and experiences. If something is not right, the amygdala which is our alert system right next door to the hippocampus is activated. The amygdala communicates through sensations that you feel in your body and does so by sending a channel of information into your gut and other organs via the vagus nerve.
The gut feeling you have should not be confused with emotions. Rather, it can help you process emotions both present and past. For example: imagine you feel like there is a lump in your throat when you feel upset. If it feels safe to do so, go into your body and ask: what is this lump sensation in my throat? Does it want to move or expand? What does it need from me in order to do so?
A professional athlete who was once my patient had massive anxiety when younger players were drafted and/or traded to play on his team. He did a very brave thing: he went and got to know them and helped his amygdala learn that it was safe and friendly. How so? He learned to how to shuffle between all levels of the brain including: reasoning and logic, feeling and emotion, and wisdom of the body. By doing so, he was able to feel more integrated, less in conflict with himself, and feeling much more connected to his teammates.
Do you ever have a gut feeling that you know you need to listen to? Our bodies are part of our minds and they speak to us every day. And when you pay attention, it can improve your life.
Sometimes your body knows what is right for you. It sends you signals. When your feelings are in a spin, the message from your body becomes very clear. However, the message or messages can become difficult to interpret when our mental health is in poor shape.
Anxiety and inner conflict arise if our inner compass is cloudy and if our mind is at odds with itself in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. In my practice, I both encourage and educate my patients to learn how to listen to their own insides and actively tune into the sensations they experience in their bodies. By doing so, we can identify what is right for us and and feel empowered to take the small, safe steps towards healing.
This type of somatic awareness can help us to become aligned in our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The gut feelings we experience are not just for emergency "fight or flight" situations, they are present all the time. Just as you are reading this blog post, if you focus your attention on the heart and gut regions of your body, you will begin to notice a response to my words. Just notice if any part of you feels my words to be true, or perhaps you feel "no that can't be true". Perhaps you notice your attention going elsewhere? Like reading ahead to see how much longer this post is? Just notice how quickly or slowly your body is able to take a complex situation and summarize it quickly, or moment by moment.
There is to come on this topic, so stay tuned!
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a board certified mental health professional in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.