Body Sense

Restorative embodied self-awareness as a pathway to well-being.

Is your child stressed out? Why you may not know.

Is your child stressed out? Why you may not know.

For the third year in a row, the American Psychological Association (APA) sponsored the 2009 Stress in America Survey, the results of which were just released. The survey was done online by Harris Interactive between July 21, 2009 and August 4, 2009 among 1,568 adults aged 18+ who reside in the U.S. A parallel Youth Query survey was conducted between August 19 and 27, 2009 among 1,206 young people aged 8-17 years old.

It is not news that these surveys show that people of all ages are increasingly under stress. That has been going on for a while, especially with the crises in the economy, health care, climate, and war.

The most troubling results of these surveys are that parents do not seem to be aware of the impact of stress on their children. Quoting from the APA web site, "Parents' responses about sources of stress for their children were out of sync with what children reported as sources of worry. Children were more likely to say they worried about their family's financial difficulties than parents were to say this was a source of stress for their children (30 percent vs. 18 percent of parents). In general, children also were more likely to report having experienced physical symptoms often associated with stress than parents were to say their children experienced these symptoms.

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Tweens (30 percent) and teens (42 percent) say they get headaches vs. 13 percent of parents
Tweens (39 percent) and teens (49 percent) cite difficulty sleeping vs. 13 percent of parents
Tweens (27 percent) and teens (39 percent) report eating too much or too little vs. 8 percent of parents."

This means that close to half of American teens are showing somatic symptoms of stress (headache, sleep disturbance, and eating problems)! Of the group of kids reporting these problems, less than a third of their parents are aware of their children's suffering. Why? One reason is that parents are even more stressed than their kids and show even more signs of body dysfunction.

Again, from the APA web site: "Seventy-five percent of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month (24 percent extreme, 51 percent moderate) and nearly half reported that their stress has increased in the past year (42 percent). Nearly half (43 percent) of adults say they eat too much or eat unhealthy foods as a result of stress. While 44 percent of adults report that they exercise or walk to relieve stress, many Americans also say they rely on more sedentary activities to manage stress (49 percent listen to music, 41 percent read, 36 percent watch TV or movies more than two hours per day, and 33 percent play video games.) While these activities may be helpful in alleviating stress, they do not provide the extra benefit of improving overall physical health or maintaining a more healthy weight that more active forms of stress management afford. Overall, many adults say they have felt the physical effects of stress in the past month:

7 percent of all adults report that they have lain awake at night;
45 percent report irritability or anger;
43 percent report fatigue;
34 percent report headaches;
34 percent report feeling depressed or sad; and
27 percent report upset stomach or indigestion as a result of stress."          

    

If you are stressed, you are pretty much incapable of seeing that the people around you may also be stressed. If you are stressed, it's not just your mind that misfires, your body starts to fall apart. If you are in pain, tired, anxious, sleepless, and not eating well, it is often because you can't sense when and what your body needs at any given moment. Stress, in other words, is essentially a body sense dysfunction.

We have two basic waking states of awareness about ourselves: conceptual and embodied. Conceptual self-awareness is when we are thinking (evaluating, judging, questioning, worrying) about ourselves, our needs, our responsibilities, our plans and goals. Embodied self-awareness (the body sense) does not involve thinking at all: it is a pure state of feeling and sensing our movements, body states, sensory impressions, and emotions.

Sorry folks, but you can't be both conceptual and embodied at the same time. There is a dipole switch in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) that either shows activation in the ventral part (embodied self-awareness) or the dorsal part (conceptual self-awareness) but not in both at the same time. The dorso-MPFC is linked to areas of the brain that relate to conceptual and logical thought. The ventro-MPFC is linked to areas of the sensory, motor, and emotional and regulatory areas of the brain (orbitofrontal cortex, hypothalamus, insula, anterior cingulate cortex, brain stem, sensory and motor cortices, etc.) -- and these in turn to hormonal, respiratory, digestive, and immune systems -- that help us to regulate our bodies in a way that is beneficial to our overall health.

This anatomical architecture has two inescapable implications. First, we have to engage our body sense in order to restore homeostatic well being in our systems. This is why yoga, massage and other touch therapies, meditation, relaxation, being in nature, and exercise are all beneficial to health. These all bring us back to ourselves and literally recharge the batteries rather than running them down by boosting immune function, tissue repair, and self-care behavior. Only the VMPFC is linked to those crucially important regulatory body functions.

Second, you can't think your way out of stress. Of course, that is what we all try to do, to figure out how to make things better. That conceptual effort, however, only leads to more drain on the batteries and ultimately to dysfunction, which creates more stress because our problems and obligations are still there and we have fewer metabolic resources to deal with them. If you are thinking that you are in pain, if you think you are tired, if you think you are anxious, you are probably wrong! The only way to find out what you are really feeling, and therefore to discover what your body needs, is by going into your body sense.

Conceptual thought is extremely fast and logical. The body sense is slow and irrational. It is scary to step out of the perceived control of thinking and into the messy, unsettling, and juicy body sense. So, we don't do it. We prefer to veg out with palliatives including media, alcohol, drugs, and junk foods. None of these things are necessarily bad in moderation but when used as a general rule, they contribute to the numbing of our body sense.

I don't know how to say this more clearly: When the body sense is numbed, it leads to a breakdown of our body functions at a cellular level. Without the body sense, the restorative and growth functions of our body cease to work and we go into a physiological state of emergency which is basically an open invitation to all kinds of disease and dysfunction to enter and infect us. Because the body sense is numb, we don't even know how sick we are until there is a major health crisis. Do you really want your wake-up call to come in the form of a heart attack, high blood pressure, cancer, chronic fatigue, or mental illness?

To slow down and just be present with feelings and sensations is the best Rx for stress. Before you begin to feel renewed, however, you may cry, you may feel real physical and emotional pain, you may shake and tremble with the intensity of what has been locked up in your body but ultimately soothed by the experience. If you can't do that on your own, then you need the support of a class or body-centered therapy. Not only will you find yourself feeling better, more alive, and more optimistic, but you will be able to really empathize with and help your loved ones manage their stress.

Like adults, children often don't know how to handle stress. Like adults, children don't often connect the dots between stress, body dysfunction, and body sense. Adults need to teach children about these basic psychophysiological links, and we can only do that by example (not by a list of conceptual rules, demands, or judgments). The resources for re-discovering and cultivating the body sense, for children and adults, are probably more readily available now than in the entire history of Western Civilization. By choosing to take advantage of them, you can flip that MPFC switch to the ventral position.

 

Alan Fogel, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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