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Deepen Self Understanding by Connecting with Your Body & Feelings

Research consistently supports the fact that our minds, bodies and emotions are deeply connected.


We live in a culture that tends to over-rely on our thoughts and not enough on our bodily sensations and feelings. In order to restore balance and increase overall well-being, one aspect of therapy that I believe is invaluable is helping clients strengthen the connection between their mind, body and emotional experiences. 


Often, I see clients getting stuck in cycles of thinking that are detrimental to their wellbeing. This usually appears as fixation or rumination on negative thoughts about the self. A useful tool to break this cycle is helping clients get out of their heads and into their bodies. While this intervention may seem simple, it is actually quite difficult for many because people are so unused to connecting with their bodies in an intentional way. They may not even be aware of bodily discomfort until what started as a smoke signal internally becomes a raging fire. For example, someone may not be connected enough with their body to notice the ache in their back until they have developed a chronic pain condition that requires an intense level of intervention to heal. Such is the consequence of ignoring what our bodies are telling us. 


Finding Body-Mind Balance

Of course the pendulum can swing both ways. There are people who become overly sensitive to bodily sensations to the point where they may become paranoid about potential health problems that don’t exist. This over-attunement is a sneaky way of the brain continuing to run the show when someone chronically misattributes small signs of physical discomfort to catastrophic health conditions. As with most things in human health, finding balance is key. Whether the brain is ignoring important bodily signals or catastrophizing bodily signals, learning to tune into the body and really listen to what it is telling you is extremely helpful in maintaining mental health and general wellness. I will identify and describe two simple steps that help to bring awareness and balance to the experience of the body and feelings in addition to thoughts. 


Step One: Noticing and labeling 

With the people who tend to chronically ignore bodily signals, I find the first step of building awareness to be noticing. I may ask a client to spend a week regularly checking-in with their body in order to get used to this practice. They may need to set an alarm at regular intervals or otherwise create a structure to make sure they don’t forget to integrate this practice into their daily routine. The important part of this practice is to simply expose a person to the experience of checking-in with their body. 


For some clients, I may also suggest they use this practice and check-in with their emotional state. Sometimes it can be tricky for people to discern between thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. This is because we often do not educate people on the difference between these human experiences and tend to defer to thoughts as a source of truth. I see many people in counseling who are engaged in an internal battle between their body, their thoughts and their feelings. Try hard as they might, often they cannot outthink what their heart or what their body is telling them. 


Implementing some structure may be helpful to the noticing process. In addition to setting alarms, checking-in may be a multi-step process wherein someone checks-in first with their thoughts, then with their bodily sensations, then with their feelings. These intentional check-ins can also help one discern more readily between their thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Sometimes putting these experiences into a sentence can help solidify these different facets of human experience. For example, someone might lie down on the bed to check-in with themselves and create a sentence like, “I am thinking about paying rent next week, my stomach is unsettled and I am feeling anxious.” This sentence includes their thought, accompanying bodily sensation and pairing these experiences with a feeling. This process is the labeling of their experience. 


For some, it may be easier to identify one aspect of thoughts, bodily sensations or feelings over the others. For example, I often will identify a feeling and it takes me a while to create understanding or meaning out of the feeling I am experiencing. I often have to take intentional time to put thoughts or make sense of these experiences. I may also tend to be one who is overly sensitive to my bodily sensations and I have to work on dialing back my anxious thoughts about my health when I feel discomfort in my body. 


Step Two: Integration 

Once a person becomes more comfortable noticing and labeling their thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, it is important to begin to integrate this practice into daily life. For example, someone who struggles with emotion regulation during conflict with their partner may begin to practice taking a moment to check-in with themselves when they notice that their feelings are sending smoke signals and it may be important to take a break from conflict and return later when in a more regulated state. 


For others, integration might look like learning to interrupt a negative thought spiral by engaging in a check-in process with their body and feelings. Getting into this habit is similar to going to the gym and working a muscle group; practice leads to progress. For those of us who struggle with catastrophizing about our bodily sensations, it may be helpful to learn how to engage in some self soothing and nervous system regulation when we notice our thoughts spiraling. This can look like taking a moment to intentionally breathe, take a walk, rest, or maybe work to develop a counter narrative to the negative thinking spiral we are engaged in. 


It may take some time for integration to happen and that is totally normal and okay. Furthermore, it is important to remember not to let perfectionism interfere with this practice. The goal is not to be perfectly attuned to your thoughts, feelings and body all the time, rather to increase the connection between these different facets of human experience and to bring balance to all parts of the self. 


In practicing these simple steps, hopefully some increased awareness in self-understanding can be gained. I also believe it is important to become aware of how our cultures and society shapes us and our tendencies. For example, we live in an increasingly screen-dependent world. What does this mean about the parts of ourselves that we use to navigate the world more than others? How do we ensure our bodies and feelings don’t get left behind when we have all this engagement going on between the world and our mind? 


It is also important to remember that connecting with our bodies and emotions is a radical act of resistance against systems that are detrimental to our mental health and wellbeing. If we truly became attuned to our bodies we may realize how harmful the expectation is that we should be sitting at a desk and staring at a screen for eight hours per day, five days per week. We may begin to question the expectations our employers have of us in terms of how much of our energy and life force we are expected to give our jobs just to meet our basic needs for food and shelter. We may begin to realize that having to pay for healthcare in order to maintain our bodily wellness, as if it is a privilege for the wealthy and not a fundamental human right, is an atrocious and criminal act.


I believe living intentionally and striving to maintain balance between all parts of ourselves is an integral part of maintaining mental health and wellbeing. We will all stray from the path of wellness from time to time, however, with these tools we can more easily find our way back on track. If you would like to work on increasing self understanding and become more comfortable tuning into what your body and feelings are telling you, consider scheduling an initial appointment with me by emailing me at drchelseatwisscounseling@gmail.com.


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