Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts in a series about emotional reactivity and how body-based psychotherapy can help. Part II appears here.
Our experience of this life is a bodily one. From our perceptions to our moods, the sensory data flowing within our body influences, moment to moment, our experience of self, other, and world.
Personal narrative emerges from sensation.
And sensation follows personal narrative.
From this perspective, as biological responders, our bodies are capable of moving us between two radically different realities. We might conceptualize it as the same story told by two different writers. In one story, we feel internally anxious, the world around us foreboding and relentlessly demanding. In the other story, we notice a calm, connected contentment. We feel OK.
Which book will we read? And do we really have a choice?
The Ups and Downs of Our Nervous Systems
The autonomic nervous system—the biology that regulates our breathing, keeps blood flowing, and maintains the equilibrium of the body without conscious effort—does so by striking a balance, as needed, between energy-up and energy-down. When we need energy up (sometimes to survive immediate threat, sometimes to connect and play), the brain prepares the body for action by activating the sympathetic side of the nervous system. (Breathe in.) When not balanced by the parasympathetic side, fight-or-flight can occur, diverting energy away from unnecessary systems such as speech, digestion, and long-term memory. In a functioning system, when the threat (or other energy requirement) has passed, the parasympathetic side returns systems to their regular function, switching into maintenance and repair mode. (Breathe out.)
It is the union and balance of these two sides—sympathetic and parasympathetic—that brings peace. On our “good” days, there’s a rhythm to this. Breathe in, breathe out. For many, sometimes biologically predisposed and especially in trauma, the rhythm breaks, leaving them with bodily systems more prone to one side or the other: on alert (sympathetic) or frozen (parasympathetic).
While much of this is simply automatic, we have some degree of choice in noticing and responding to internal processes. We know techniques and practices to engage energy-up or energy-down as needed, and the more often we do so, the easier it becomes to inhabit a world of our choosing. While we may not avoid the pain of life, we may dramatically reduce the suffering.
Out of Sync: A Weighted Body in a Hostile World
Our story, as told by a less balanced author, feels heavy and overwhelming.
This is a world of navigation rather than interaction, of survival rather than connection.
The body, when charging to the sympathetic end of the spectrum, often feels rigid and constricted. When falling into the parasympathetic end, the body might feel completely separate, like we are floating above it in some space where thoughts and words feel hazy or distant. This world, out of balance either way, often brings with it some expectation (often subconscious or unrecognized) of impending threat.
This is a world outside of us. We focus externally, sometimes hyper-aware of surrounding environment. If we are focused, we are not absorbing. More often, we are replaying movies in our minds—looping through old information, unable to bring in or feel new sensory input.
This is imbalance.
As much as we believe that the brain will save us, in this uncomfortable world, no amount of analysis, planning, or rumination will change our experience of life. We cannot think our way out of this story.
We are reconstructing trauma. People around us may cease being human, becoming instead objects of threat, expected to play out past abuse: judge us, physically harm us, leave us, or just get in our way when we need to move to survive.
It’s not just wars and “obvious” abuses. Sometimes it’s the workplace or walking down the street. Sometimes it’s a sense that we’ve forgotten how to relax. We keep seeking relaxation, and in that search for peace it eludes us. We might smoke, seek orgasm, watch television, or play video games. We attempt to force balance, to force regulation. And only rarely do we stop. Release feels always another step away.
From this place of physical activation, problems feel amplified and urgent, roadblocks unavoidable. We become attuned to threats, more likely to perceive or elicit them. We may notice an urgency to “do” or prove something, and somehow the resources at hand are not enough, or we get stuck in an endless loop of “doing” without stopping to appreciate the completion of tasks. Various neural resources go offline, and we are left ruminating or analyzing with a sense that resolution remains a step away.
The Closed Loop
Our unbalanced states provide unreliable witness. We cannot trust our own perceptions, intuition, or expectations of self, other, or world. When activated, we revert to internal models, defaults, obsolete (non-present) information. This is the brain: looping, telling stories, repeating old information. Present information comes through our senses, our bodies.
As much as we believe that the brain will save us, in this uncomfortable world, no amount of analysis, planning, or rumination will change our experience of life. We cannot think our way out of this story. The thoughts themselves, more prone to negativity, are working against us.
Coming Next: Dropping Out of Reactivity
In our reaction to this bodily overwhelm, we often escape into our heads. Thought becomes the refuge from sensations. This is the beginning of reactivity.
In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to access a more comfortable reality on a regular basis over time. And we’ll expand on the origin of seemingly automatic reactions, exploring ways to transform them into mindful, intentional responses.
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