February 19, 2013

Trusting What We’re Feeling. ~ Sarah Warren

Amnesia of Awareness.

When we have taught ourselves not just to ignore our bodies, but to actually make them want the wrong things, it becomes difficult to trust what we’re feeling.

A newborn comes into the world and is immediately overwhelmed by new sensations.

The chill of the air, the warmth of her mother’s touch, and the roughness of a blanket against her skin. Coming from her mother’s womb, where everything was provided, having the internal sensations of being hungry, tired and uncomfortable feel brand new as well.

While her ability to perceive these sensations is nearly fully developed, her ability to process these sensations is not. With no learned responses or self-regulation in place, infants react instinctively and without inhibition. Is it any wonder that young children have such highs and lows—crying and throwing a fit one minute, and perfectly content or even ecstatic the next?

Almost immediately, we ask the infant to begin focusing her attention on her external environment—the mobile above her crib, a new stuffed animal or the funny faces we make. We ask her not to react to her internal sensations—to stop crying, even if she is upset, hungry or uncomfortable. Often the stuffed animals and funny faces are used to distract the infant from what she is sensing internally so that she will stop reacting.

As the child gets older, we demand that she sit quietly at her school desk and focus on the blackboard. In gym class, physical activity usually takes the form of team sports, in which her focus must be completely on the other players and the ball. She is told to eat foods that she doesn’t like and to clean her plate when she’s not hungry. She is told to be a “big girl” and act like an adult when she’s upset.

From a very early age, we begin teaching children to have an external focus and ignore their internal sensations and emotions.

While it is necessary to self-regulate in order to function in adult society, many people have been taught to value self-control to the extreme.

The result is loss of self-awareness, desensitization and repression, which lead to poor physical and mental health. It’s human’s incredible capacity to learn, which gives us this almost unlimited ability to control ourselves.

Unfortunately, our capacity to learn also creates great opportunity for self-destruction. Animals rely largely on instincts and reflexes their entire lives, preventing them from overeating, misusing their bodies and repressing emotions.

We have evolved to survive, and one of our survival mechanisms is our ability to sense internally when something is not right. The sensation of pain lets us know that our physical body is being harmed in some way. The feeling of our stomach being upset lets us know that we’ve eaten something we shouldn’t have. The feeling of being stressed out or sad lets us know that something is bothering us.

Each time we ignore these sensations, we are teaching ourselves to become less aware.

Not only can we lose awareness of what we’re sensing internally, but we can teach ourselves that something that’s bad for us is actually good. Over time, both our body and our mind can start to demand that which is bad for us. We’ll have both physical and psychological cravings for deep-fried food. We will be more comfortable slouched at a computer than standing up straight. We will fall into a pattern of thriving on a high-stress job and moving quickly all the time, and being very uncomfortable taking time off to slow down and relax.

The saying “listen to your body” is one which we should live by, but when we’ve taught ourselves not just to ignore our bodies, but to actually make them want the wrong things, it becomes difficult to trust what we’re feeling.

Luckily, through the same learning process by which we desensitized ourselves, we can rebuild our awareness and improve our health. When beginning a process of change, it’s often helpful to get guidance from a professional—one who can offer expert advice and also provide the necessary objective third-person point of view.

When you’re stuck in an unhealthy pattern, having someone tell you that what you’re craving or feeling is wrong is a critical step in breaking out of that pattern.

If you’re in a pattern of eating unhealthy foods, seek out a nutritional coach who can create a plan of gradual change for you. Take small steps and allow yourself to get used to the new way of eating. Drastic changes almost never work because we haven’t given ourselves time to adjust.

If you have habituated poor postural habits and damaging movement patterns, work with a Clinical Somatic Educator. Many people believe that poor posture, chronic stiffness and pain are an unavoidable part of aging, but that’s entirely false. Repetitive movements, chronic stress, and a sedentary lifestyle teach us to hold tension in our muscles and adopt abnormal posture.

Like anything else we’ve learned, we can undo these damaging habits through a simple process of rebuilding sensory-motor awareness. A psychological counselor can help you to understand why you might be feeling stress, anxiety or depression. As children we’re often not taught how to process our emotions—only to repress them—so reaching adulthood and not being able to recognize and deal our emotions in a healthy way is quite common, and nothing to be worried or embarrassed about.

Any change is likely to feel uncomfortable at first. Just as it was so difficult to sit quietly in school all day and not move, beginning an exercise routine might feel like an impossible challenge.

Take it slowly and remember that it is a learning process; a process of creating new habits and rebuilding awareness. It will definitely take time, and may feel like a struggle, but will be well worth the journey.


Sarah Warren is a Clinical Somatic Educator who works with people who have chronic pain, musculoskeletal conditions and posture and mobility issues. She is the co-owner and co-founder of Somatic Movement Center in Watertown, MA. Sarah’s passions are helping people work with the underlying causes of their pain and teaching them how to get rid of their pain for life. Follow Sarah on Twitter @movepainfree and reach her through www.somaticmovementcenter.com.

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Asst. Ed. Evan Livesay / Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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