Letting your Body be your Guide

Paying attention to pain has big pay-offs.

Posted Jul 28, 2009

Body sense is the ability to pay attention to ourselves, to feel our sensations, emotions, and movements on-line, in the present moment, without the mediating influence of judgmental thoughts. Body sense, or embodied self-awareness, occurs in the "present moment" while its counterpart, conceptual self-awareness, is abstract and distant from the present moment.

Suppose you are walking and have a dull pain in your foot. You are late for an appointment or just trying to get a lot done. Your conceptual self-awareness is saying things like, "I have to get this errand done, or else...," or "What will they think of me if I'm late, again!" You could be having more positive thoughts about yourself: "Once I get this done, I'm going to have some well-deserved down time." In all these cases, you are suppressing how your foot feels, keeping body sense at bay. And your conceptual self-awareness might even say, "It's not so bad, hey, I'm still getting things done." Whatever happens, you are in control. You are not going to let this foot get in your way.

Your embodied self-awareness isn't so tidy and predictable. You would have to stop thinking about yourself, or anything else for that matter, and just feel your foot as you walk. What part of the foot is the pain coming from? Does the pain radiate elsewhere or is it localized to one spot? Is it a familiar pain or one you never had before? Is it coming from your foot or is there a rock in your shoe? These feelings are related to the part of our body sense called body schema self-awareness. It is related to locations and boundaries of self and other. You may need to put your weight on one and then another part of your foot to answer these questions.

Further exploration can get to the quality of the pain and other feelings and sensations to which the pain may be connected. Is the pain burning or sharp? Continuous or intermittent? Does the rest of your foot and leg feel comfortable or are your muscles tensing around the pain? If it is a familiar pain, are you getting that "Oh, not again" sinking feeling or a feeling of certainty in knowing what to do for your foot? These sensations and emotions are from the part of our body sense called interoceptive self-awareness.

And if you are really following your feelings about this, may have to stop and sit, take your shoe off to look at or rub your foot, or search for that possible rock. Your conceptual self is not in control anymore.

You are letting your body guide you and that may mean that you have to be late, or not get everything done you had planned, which may bring up more feelings that your body sense, if it is willing, can detect: Feelings like disappointment or rage, or if you are lucky, acceptance and gratitude for taking care of yourself.

Body sense is our physiological internal guidance system: It can lead us toward self-regulation, pain reduction, and improved health. If we use it regularly it can lead us into states of peace and calm, a safe shelter from the storms of life's incessant demands and obligations. Body sense feels like coming home to ourselves each time we access it.

Unfortunately, staying in our body sense is not as easy as it sounds. Those demands, real and imagined, also have a powerful effect on our physiology. Our body interprets these as threats to the self and keeps us in conceptual self-awareness. Even mild threats, if they continue to press us into action, stimulate the same neurotransmitters and neurohormones and the same brain regions as traumatic threats. And these physiological processes are radically different from those that occur in embodied self-awareness which is connected to feelings of safety and at-home-ness. Threat networks lead to drains on metabolic resources and ultimately to cellular damage and disease. Safety networks are fundamentally restorative to mental and physical health, allowing the body to rest, recover, and heal.