A Calm in the Storm, Part II: Finding Imperfect Balance

Happy woman hiker crossing suspension bridge in sunlight.Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts in a series about emotional reactivity and how body-based psychotherapy can help. Part I appears here.

Sometimes, we think of reactivity as an anger problem or a struggle with emotional regulation. While these may be accurate, reactivity is also a signal. It’s the body getting our attention when no other approach has been able to do so, when we have become accustomed to ignoring or disconnecting from overwhelming sensory signals.

Reactivity happens when we take up residence in our heads, in “do” mode or “autopilot.” Our internal dialogue, conscious or not, might include something like, “I am on a mission. I’m anxious. I’m desperate. Threat is looming. I need to do this to survive, and you’re in my way.” Or, when child states are triggered, the internal message might be: “I need something from you, and you are not giving it to me.”

When bodily sensations become overwhelming and we hold a belief that the present state is the only state—that it will last forever—the head becomes a refuge. Especially in interpersonal traumas where the body boundary has been crossed or our sense of agency taken, we no longer trust our bodies, our senses.

We disconnect from the body.

We simply stop paying attention to it.

This is the key to reactivity and the perpetuation of unbalance.

When we ignore the body, we dissociate from our pain. We also tend to get surprised and overwhelmed by moods. Without an internal observer, we fail to recognize and differentiate various sides in our internal conflicts. Rather than checking in at a bodily level and noticing a drip, we remain unaware of any water until it becomes a flood, until it grows so vast that we can no longer ignore it. It washes us away.

Trauma, especially, erases the numbers on our speedometers. We get caught off guard by our own seemingly immediate velocities.

Without the body, we become stuck in planning and analysis. We remain in preparation mode, on guard and vigilant to the outside world and ignoring our own internal processes. We stay in our brains, our safe spaces, with some intention: “I won’t get caught off guard.” Neither will we leave our metaphorical bunker to see the threat has passed.

Sometimes reactivity simply means our nervous systems are on alert, and we are reacting to perceived threat rather than present information. We are looking out into the world and seeing objects or internal models (crude, simple, black-and-white compilations of “other” based on past pain) rather than “gray,” complex subjects. This reactive, unbalanced world is more efficient than accurate.

In Balanced Rhythm: The Expansive, Welcoming World

There is another reality. It’s the same story told by a different author: a physical awareness of balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. This balance, when we are attuned to ourselves, often brings feelings of expansion and compassion, connection and contentment. Our bodies feel lighter, flowing. We feel capable and free of expectation. We allow ourselves to follow curiosity and creativity.

A body-based therapy (Hakomi body-based psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, sensorimotor psychotherapy, etc.) allows space to interact, to experiment.

This is an interior world, interconnected with the outside world. We are present with self and other, able to “be” with emotions, to connect empathically with humans rather than objects. In this reality, we may recognize a sense of reliance on our own gut feeling, our intuition serving us as guide and compass.

This is where the processing occurs.

No longer are we looping and ruminating. Unresolved issues are sorted, processed, filed away in their proper drawers, and put to rest. Even in the presence of emotion, of grieving, there comes a feeling that everything is in its place, that we’re OK.

This, in itself, is therapy.

Finding the Still, Small Voice Inside

Loss of balance can happen instantaneously. It can be triggered. Moving back to the calm, while at either extreme of the nervous system, can feel impossible and counterintuitive. Imbalance becomes self-perpetuating, sustained by its own negative feedback loop. In an activated state, the drive to remain active and vigilant feels like an urgent necessity. Internal messages might include: “You need to do more.” Or, “Threat is coming. Stay alert. Stay prepared.”

What may help us most, from this place, feels most impossible and most threatening.

When we feel our bodies and notice our senses, we come back to the present moment. We take in new information. We start processing again. We are self-attuned.

Gradual Steps to Self-Regulation

If we all had the ability to stop at will, we would do so naturally.

There is no perfection to this process, and no judgment.

At a neurobiological level, certain structural changes promote a balanced nervous system. Sometimes, these structures develop with age. Sometimes, they are developed in therapy, in nature or meditation, in the consistent love of a “found” family.

Our brains and our realities remain malleable.

The Benefits of Therapy

Our imbalance—our reactivity and separation from self—can tell us a lot about our history. Sometimes, particular triggers reach back to childhood events. In a counseling office, this information can provide a valuable pathway to long-term change.

A body-based therapy (Hakomi body-based psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, sensorimotor psychotherapy, etc.) allows space to interact, to experiment. We learn to trust. We learn focus, introspection, exteroception, interoception, and proprioception. These are building blocks of self and emotional regulation.

From there—from a place of relative balance—we process together. We might change core beliefs, discharge old wounding, or learn to switch between states at will. All the while, at an attachment level, we are learning to “be” with an other—internalizing an attuned, loving reflection while simultaneously feeling relaxed and connected. This allows us to walk the world with some level of comfort in our own skin, to trust ourselves as a “home base,” to trust others, and to rely on an internal, felt sense of safety.

This is our imperfect balance.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • cooper

    cooper

    October 15th, 2015 at 8:08 AM

    and just knowing that this balance is going to be imperfect at times is important

  • Kell

    Kell

    October 16th, 2015 at 11:05 AM

    I understand that for some people that anger is a signal but there are also those people who will ignore that signal for too long and by the time they are willing to pay attention to it, it is too late and they have allowed than anger to get the very best of them. What do you do about that when they have tried to ignore it but then they lash out and hurt another person?

  • Warren

    Warren

    October 17th, 2015 at 7:42 AM

    We become so unwilling to identify our own needs that they go unheeded and ignored. Of course that is then when we all get surprised by those things that we have ignored for a very long time.

  • Cora

    Cora

    October 19th, 2015 at 8:28 AM

    You know that you are on a path to doing something good when you have that lightness to your body that has been missing.

  • Belle

    Belle

    October 24th, 2015 at 1:25 PM

    But none of us are perfect and the sooner that we understand that then I think the sooner most of us will be happier with our over all life experience

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