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Unrest Signals Your Need to Tune In

Here's how to harness it.

Key points

  • Unrest, nervous system activation heralding vulnerability, triggers us to avoid the inner experience.
  • Unrest is a paradox that reveals optimal moments to tune in to grow. It feels like a threat, so you're wired to tune out, distract, and avoid it.
  • Slow, focused attention to sensations when you feel unrest will soothe your body and allow you to be mindful.
OpenClipart-Vectors
Source: OpenClipart-Vectors

Why is it so hard to be present?

Be present–come home to your body in this moment. It’s a simple message.

But have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to be present?

We all struggle with slowing down and really feeling our lives. With seemingly endless advice for living mindfully–apps to calm ourselves, mindfulness resources for the workplace, and books and courses for everyone from kids and teens to parents–we still mindlessly scroll and worry and shop and react like never before. We are increasingly overwhelmed and detached. What’s going on?

The Real Secret: “Unrest”

The secret is unrest: your brilliant, embodied signal calling you to wake up in moments of vulnerability to help you grow. Vulnerability is a fact, constant and inevitable, like a background hum of life: you have limits to control things.

Whether it’s landing that job, having a good night’s sleep, meeting the partner of your dreams, losing your keys, catching the bus, not catching Covid, your cat barfing on your carpet, your kids launching successfully, getting your brother to quit drinking, saving the planet, or making this perfect moment, where we are all finally together laughing and close, last forever and never end. It is not entirely. Up. To. You.

But the fact of vulnerability becomes an immediate and personal feeling when those ever-present limits get in the way of something you long for. Wired through the same nervous system circuitry as fear, unrest is a physical spike that alerts you the moment your longing bumps into limits. Unrest can nudge you with a quiver or a held breath, or it can derail you as your heart pounds and adrenaline shoots through your bloodstream.

These sensations are physiologically indistinguishable from fear. And therein lies our shared human predicament. Meant to help you wake up and be present, unrest is misinterpreted as danger and unconsciously ejects you from your inner life. So even when you intend to pay inner attention and be present, unrest signals vulnerability, and you scan for danger, brace, and push harder.

You’re absently worrying about that bump on your arm or frantically adding a 37th item to your to-do list, or engrossed in cute kitten videos. You didn’t even sense the quiver in your body meant to herald an experience that could grow you but kicked you out.

Fear of fear is really fear of experiencing.

As an intern working with people with panic disorder, I first glimpsed this reflex to abandon ourselves in moments of vulnerability. Panic attacks are unpleasant but not dangerous, and many people (about 30 percent of the population) occasionally have one. But for a much smaller group of people (about 5 percent), panic episodes cause paralyzing dread and avoidance.

Although correcting misinterpretations about what happens in a panic episode helps, the truly potent part of therapy was when people tuned into their bodies as we evoked panic-like sensations: we ran on the spot until our hearts were pounding, spun in desk chairs until dizzy, and sucked in deep, fast breaths until lightheaded, tingly and breathless.

Staying present with their bodily experience while they felt they were going to die, people discovered they were okay even though they felt very bad. It’s empowering for people to realize the only thing that’s actually “wrong” when they have a panic attack is how it feels in the body, and life-changing to experience the mastery and worth arising from mattering enough to stay with themselves in their experience.

Pete Linforth/Pixabay
Source: Pete Linforth/Pixabay

So the big problem for people with panic disorder is resistance to felt experience. They (understandably) don’t want to feel panicky and unconsciously escape the discomfort through avoidant behaviors and anxious thoughts, accidentally creating more suffering.

Common factors research indicates one of the most powerful predictors of positive therapeutic outcomes is helping people confront what they’ve been avoiding. And yet, aren’t we all avoiding our vulnerable experiences? Isn’t it just human to push against things we wish were different, or would it just go away? Don’t we all sometimes wish we felt differently? Don’t we all want some things never to change, even as we know they inevitably will, and want other things to change in the ways we want and in our timing? And isn’t that the optimal moment to come home to grow?

Your wake-up call is not a fire alarm.

Stefan Schweihofer/Pixabay
Source: Stefan Schweihofer/Pixabay
Christiane/Pixabay
Source: Christiane/Pixabay

Unrest rings like an alarm clock to awaken you to a moment when growth is calling. It rings via the same nervous system circuitry as fear, so it’s easy to misperceive your wake-up call as a fire alarm. You must embrace unrest like a friend rather than brace against it like a threat.

So when you feel a tightening in your right shoulder, pause, and pay careful attention to your tense muscles instead of being annoyed or ignoring it. After a moment of warm interest, your muscles release, and you feel your shoulder drop slightly.

Your body registers your awareness and settles, allowing a channel to open within you. A wave of sadness carries you to a truth you’ve been avoiding. You realize you’re working hard to get everything done, but you cannot do it alone. You wish you were more efficient and had more time and energy and did not have human limits.

But you are indeed only human. Sadness rises, and a heavy pressure weighs on your sternum. You breathe into the feeling as it crests and ebbs and finds a space inside yourself where you matter. You accept yourself in your limits. You feel less alone, more capable of giving yourself patience and compassion, and more able to ask for help.

Growing by Doing the Opposite of How You’re Wired

Embracing unrest asks you to do the opposite of your neural wiring and approach discomfort. This is simple advice but not easy to do. Vulnerability is painful, unrest is tricky, and shiny objects are everywhere. Unrest is physical, which means you must soothe it again and again. Just as thirst signals your need for water, unrest signals your need to tune in. You don’t need to understand “why” you don’t feel good; you don’t need to “fix” anything.

Your inner attention to sensations of unrest is the medicine you’ve been looking for to help you feel more alive, more present, and more yourself. Go slow and feel, really feel, the physical sensations as they are, without judgment, story or interpretation. Any effort to tune in is a success, as you signal to yourself that you matter even when you do not feel good, in fact, especially then.

In those moments of warm interest, the body is soothed, emotion carries you to deeper resources for coping, and you recognize yourself worth loving despite your limits.

References

Eaton, W. W., Kessler, R. C., Wittchen, H. U., & Magee, W. J. (1994). Panic and panic disorder in the United States. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 151(3), 413–420.

Katzman, M.A., Bleau, P., Blier, P. et al. Canadian clinical practice guidelines for the management of anxiety, posttraumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders. BMC Psychiatry 14, S1 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-14-S1-S1

Renee D. Goodwin, Andrea H. Weinberger, June H. Kim, Melody Wu, Sandro Galea,

Trends in anxiety among adults in the United States, 2008–2018: Rapid increases among young adults, Journal of Psychiatric Research, Volume 130, 2020, Pages 441-446.

Santomauro, D.F., Mantilla Herrera, A.M., et al (2021). Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The Lancet, 398(10312), 1700-1712

Weinberger, J. (1995). Common factors aren't so common: The common factors dilemma. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2(1), 45–69.

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