A challenging time
Everyone has stress. Finding joy may feel impossible in the face of the world’s problems, money worries, family concerns, and wondering about our future.
Our world has many sources of stress. Today we’ll focus on how our conditioning leads us to stress and how we can change that conditioning. When we are present and aware of ourselves and others, we can begin noticing our patterns, make new choices, and develop habits that nourish us and bring us the joy we crave. And rather than judging and blaming ourselves for our feelings and behavior, we experience self-compassion.
How we feel about ourselves and react to difficult situations directly results from the habits we develop. Our reactions to stressful situations, what we say (or don’t say) to people who challenge us, or when we experience anxiety, fear, or anger are all learned behaviors.
We develop habitual reactions to situations to manage our emotions, particularly when young and vulnerable. Those habits worked for us at the time. But once we are adults, those same habits constrict us.
The new science
The medical community used to believe humans had a “fixed mindset.” Once we hit a certain age, as early as seven years old, whatever our habits, conditioning and personalities, there we would stay. Our intelligence, abilities, and talents were fundamentally unchangeable.
The reality is that humans have a “growth mindset.” Far from being fixed, with time and effort, we change ourselves as we choose. We develop new skills, enhance old ones, and work through failures to expand even more. That includes changing how we emotionally respond to challenges and disappointments. We are better at experiencing joy.
Presence and Awareness
We experience more joy when we gain awareness of our bodies and emotions and bring ourselves into the present moment. As neuroplasticity tells us, awareness and presence are simply skills we develop with time and effort.
And when I say “awareness” and “presence,” I mean the state of being in the moment, conscious of the body, its emotional states, and its environment. Presence is the awareness of ourselves and others.
Humans have built-in senses that help us gain awareness of our emotional states and physical sensations.
The Subtle Sense
Here’s your 50-cent word for the day: interoception. Interoception is the sense we have inside our bodies, of our bodies. The tingle of excitement when something fun is about to happen, the dropping feeling in your stomach when you worried you hurt someone’s feelings, a constriction in your throat when you feel like you might cry. These sensations are our bodies speaking to us. Those physical sensations give us our first clues when unsure of how we feel.
The body takes in information from the environment and processes it in a specific order. Something happens, and it’s the body that responds first. If the thing happening feels threatening, the body might begin breathing faster, experience nausea, or feel heavy. Next, the body interprets those sensations into emotions: fear, worry, or anxiety. Then we create a story around the physical and emotional experience, for example, “This is a scary situation that I can’t handle,” or “That person is stronger/better than me and I better do as they say.”
The more we are aware of our body and how it responds in the moment, the more we can observe what’s happening. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the experience and falling into a reaction, we can decide how we want to think about it and how we want to act.
You may think, “Stacy, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t feel my body at all.” And that’s common. Many people don’t feel much sensation, which helps shut down strong feelings. If you have difficulty feeling your body or emotions, I recommend you begin with a skilled therapist.
Just as we can feel overwhelmed with negative sensations and emotions, so too can we infuse our bodies with the positive. If it feels safe, try a simple exercise: Recall when you felt joy, peace, love, or another positive emotion. Place yourself at that moment. See the place in your mind’s eye and remember the smells and sensations. Now check into your body. What do you notice? You may experience some tingles, warmth, or pressure. Focusing on those sensations, no matter how small, help you gain greater awareness of your body, allowing you to experience the present moment more fully.
How do we gain this awareness of ourselves and our reactions? One way is to set the intention to begin noticing the body and its responses. For example:
You’re in a heated discussion with someone at work and they say something that hurts. Your brain turns off, and you feel frozen in place and can’t think how to respond. This is a classic freeze response. You may not notice this response happened until later. And now that you are calm, you think of all the points you wish you had made but didn’t occur to you then. We’ve all had that frustrating moment of thinking of the perfect comeback hours later. Please don’t assume it’s your fault; your body ran the show for the rest of that conversation. But full points for noticing your freeze response!
Now you know that specific comments and situations can trigger you. During a future heated discussion, you may notice that you are beginning to freeze. You may not be able to change your reactions then, but you see more quickly that you’re triggered.
The time and place of the discussion, who makes a comment, whether the comment triggers a limiting belief or reminds you of a challenging experience–you learn more about your reactions, why they happen and can hold yourself in compassion. With time, effort and awareness, you may learn to understand why you freeze. And in that triggering moment, you can pause, breathe, and become more grounded and centered in your body.
Centered and grounded
When we are centered and grounded, we stay out of survival response (fight, flight or freeze) and remain our calm, present selves.
When we are calm and present, we have choices. Rather than freeze in a survival response, we stop to think about what we need at that moment. We choose what to say. We might still decide to shout our anger or back off, but we do so as a choice, not a reflex.
I highly recommend The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk and Healing Trauma by Peter Levine as additional resources. They offer insights and exercises to help heal the nervous system.
You may think, “I don’t know how I’d ever get to the point where I can do that!” We all can use support to break out of our conditioning.
During coaching, you learn techniques that help you center and ground in difficult moments, where you can be fully yourself. Noticing is just one of many methods that heal our reactivity. And it goes further than that. We can transform how we feel about ourselves, relate to others, and uncover desires and dreams we’ve suppressed for years because they didn’t seem possible. Finding joy becomes a part of our daily lives.
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