Let’s sit down and have a conversation, perhaps over a cup of tea. You know, the way people used to connect. We’ll sit together and enjoy the taste of the tea, the afternoon gently gliding by into the golden light of early evening.
How’s your life going? I’ll ask.
As you mull this over, I’ll continue:
How much of the time are you aware of feeling happy?
Are you in charge of guiding your life? Or is it running roughshod over you?
Do you feel your life is flying by quickly? Are you savoring it?
If you could live in any way you wanted, how would you live?
Are you living in tune with your natural rhythms? (If not, how long have you been putting that off?)
Like many of my writings, this article is about the interplay between internal and external: how our inner selves respond to the outside world.
As a somatic psychotherapist, I have spent thousands of hours tracking and supporting the innate rhythms of the human autonomic nervous system. In our natural state, our bodies (and entire beings) move in rhythmic waves.
One well-known example is circadian rhythms: the daily biological cycle of wakefulness and sleep, highly dependent on interaction between the environment (sunlight) and our nervous system.
On its own, a well-regulated nervous system will experience more subtle ebbs and flows throughout the day. There will be gentle cycles of expansion and contraction. Expansion involves experiencing more energy, more outward focus, a sense of alertness and/or well-being. Contraction involves feeling less energetic, our focus turning inward. During the normal, gentle periods of contraction, the body can rest, digest, and repair. (Harsher periods of contraction may indicate grief, depression, or the freeze response, usually reactions to traumatic circumstance.)
These cycles are reflected in many cultures’ practice of the afternoon siesta, in which businesses shut down for a few hours. People relax, nap, eat a leisurely lunch, or talk quietly with loved ones before returning to the afternoon’s work. This practice is an outward reflection of the dynamic interplay between sympathetic (fight and flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) branches of the autonomic nervous system.
Changes to this internal rhythm of ebb and flow often come from the environment. Jet lag is a disruption in our circadian rhythms, in response to our day/night clock being reset by long-distance air travel. Another largely nonthreatening example is that of a friendly neighbor knocking on the door just before bedtime, asking to borrow a cup of rice. This requires a small amount of energy to respond to, but is not a crisis.
On the one hand, it never hurts to help someone increase their resilience and capacity for joy. On the other, therapists do people a disservice if we “patch ’em up and get ’em back out there” without examining all the factors that contributed to their symptoms in the first place.
Other events are more demanding, particularly those perceived to have a direct or indirect threat to our well-being. Of course, it is normal to have our natural rhythms disrupted by environmental demands. That’s why we have a fight-or-flight nervous system. Animals go through these threat response cycles every day in their eat-or-be-eaten world, but they tend not to be traumatized by this. The question for us, as humans, is this: How often and intensely is this threat response happening in our bodies? Are we allowing ourselves to go gently into those down cycles of rest or leisurely enjoyment as we are biologically designed to do? It’s easy for the nervous system to become stuck on “on.” If we are disconnected from our bodies and their needs, we burn out eventually, and our health or emotions crash.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, I remember watching a futuristic cartoon called The Jetsons. The cartoon depicts a future where people have more leisure time because machines take care of everything. Robotic maids bring food automatically dispensed from the wall. In our reality, though, people have become busier than ever. In your daily life, you might notice some signs of this acceleration:
- Observe at a coffee shop or airport: How many people’s noses are buried in cell phones? How many people are simply present in and attending to their environment? As you look at them, do you sense any of them would be available for engagement in conversation if you approached them to make “small talk”?
- How many drivers do you observe acting impatiently (or even aggressively) at a delay of a few seconds? What do you think might have happened to their “buffer” of patience?
- Do your children have time to just hang out and be a kid? Chase bugs, play in the mud, invent their own games, watch the sun move through the sky?
- And what about you? How much leisure time do you have to “do nothing”—that is, just be? As a former speed skater, I’m not against high-energy, fun activities. But I’m always curious about whether there’s a balance. The lifestyle of “work hard, play hard” has quite a cost to the body (and, I would argue, the heart and soul) if there is no “downtime” to recharge.
- Have you noticed what your body feels like as you go about your daily activities? Does your felt sense feel charged or relaxed? If you had to guess, do you feel as though you’re spending more energy than is needed to get through whatever you’re doing? Are you charging (or dragging yourself) through things, or are you allowing them to happen? If you stop doing the things for a short while, does your body want to collapse into heavy exhaustion?
- In general, are you noticing any anxiety, depression, or burnout? How long has this been going on?
In therapy, we spend a lot of time supporting the cognitive process, the meanings we make of our daily experiences, to become better adapted to external conditions—even if current conditions are undesirable. Or, in somatic therapy, we support the resilience of the nervous system to deal with challenges.
On the one hand, it never hurts to help someone increase their resilience and capacity for joy. On the other, therapists do people a disservice if we “patch ’em up and get ’em back out there” without examining all the factors that contributed to their symptoms in the first place. Sometimes in life, you have to “just get through it,” but sometimes the healthiest thing to do is find a better, more supportive situation. Some circumstances simply are not healthy to continue living in. So, part of therapy is helping people sort through what they want and don’t want for their lives, and how to self-advocate to steer themselves in a more desirable direction.
And so I ask, rhetorically: Are you living in accordance with your body’s needs and your natural rhythms? Do you listen to what your body is telling you? If you were really, radically committed to supporting yourself and living a life of joy and meaning, what steps would you take to get your life into better alignment with what you want? Would you be willing to defy convention, or other people’s expectations, in order to get there? What is stopping you?
Circadian rhythms fact sheet. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/Factsheet_CircadianRhythms.aspx
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.