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All it took was the tone of his voice.
Minutes into a conversation with my boyfriend, I could detect boredom as he robotically described his planned trip to the gas station.
The details of the next moments seem as though they were captured by a slow-motion camera, carefully documenting the painful minutiae of my fear and nervous system dysregulation.
My stomach dropped. An awkward flush rolled over me. My chest tightened and I became nearly breathless. The muscles of my back pulled together, culminating in a sharp contracted pinch on the left side of my neck. The narrowing squeeze of the sheaths of connective tissue wrapping my skull threatened to produce a headache. My eyes widened to take in everything around me, and the quality of my voice changed. My vocal cords didn’t care that I had just answered the phone in a bookstore: my words suddenly took on the projective tenor of a singer.
My body was managing the entire process: I hadn’t perceived an emotion or conducted a single rational thought. I hadn’t even yet consciously processed that he was bored.
But my body flipped on its default safety strategy: hyper-rational intellectual processing.
Now dissociating from the physical experience, I rattled off questions that might strike his fancy, while simultaneously searching my mental index of shareable, sparky anecdotes. I mindlessly picked up a hardcover copy of Structural Yoga Therapy: Adapting to the Individual, bookmarking its potential utility as a future tool of justification and self-blame: “Sorry about earlier, I was distracted by a book,” I imagined myself saying as a way to address the emotional disconnection that hadn’t yet even hit my consciousness.
Never mind that I already own that book.
Our bodies both write and record every moment of our lives.
While our culture currently tells us that our experiences of the world live largely in our minds and that we can change our lives by amending our thoughts, we often neglect to include mention of our body as a co-participant. Our somatic experiences sometimes lead and sometimes follow but are always co-creating with our brain and deserve equal care, mention, and attention.
The emotional story of our lives is being penned into our muscles, tissues, and nervous system thanks, in part, to neuroception, an automatic system that scans our environment for physical and emotional safety and produces appropriate bodily responses.
This highly calibrated process doesn’t require the buy-in of the rational part of our brain to take action in the face of perceived danger: it leaps into protection mode long before we realize the emotional experience of fear, grief, anger, disgust, or sadness.
Most of us can recall the sensations and emotional tenor of feeling creeped out by a stranger: our heart speeds up, our muscles tense in preparation for running or jumping, and our breathing becomes shallow and compels us to move away. All of this before we have had time to think.
Yet this system can also leap into action in a bookstore during a straightforward conversation with a loved one.
Our body holds an invisible databank of the subtle voice modulations, energetic shifts, eye movements, and muscular nuances that create expressions in others. If we were not physically or emotionally nourished in our childhoods, our neuroception may be finely tuned to coding for, and acting upon, danger.
When our nervous system detects a threat, yet the threat is not actually present, this response is known as being triggered or dysregulated. In this state, it is difficult to access coordinated thought, and we may find our bodies taking over, producing the same actions, emotions, and perceptions as if we were face to face with a creepy stranger.
It becomes infinitely more difficult, or even impossible, to enact conscious mindset shifts in this state as we are defaulting to the cellular coding of the dangers in our earlier lives—even if our rational minds do not consider our past “dangerous.”
I grew up in a classic “good family.” My parents loved me, provided for me, and did their best to raise a productive and independent adult.
But I also have parents who didn’t have the capacity to help me with my emotions due to their own barren inner emotional landscapes. There were no readily available tools from which they could learn the skills they weren’t themselves given: no podcasts, Atlases of the Heart, or Oprah co-writes with Bruce Perry. But there was generalized era shame and resignation around therapy.
Like many parents of their time, they banished me, physically and emotionally, when I was upset. If I had an outburst, they sent me away. Once I returned, we never spoke of the incident again: I was to put on a happy face and pretend it never happened.
Because I didn’t have anyone to attune to, process with, or witness the normal but abundant emotional pain and panics of childhood as they were happening, I blamed myself for upsetting others and focused on creating intellectual solutions. I learned to ignore the resulting pit in my stomach.
Unbeknownst to me, I also coded the tone of boredom and disengagement as danger. Because in my childhood, they were.
Years later, in a non-incident in a bookstore, my neuroception accurately detected boredom in my boyfriend’s voice and responded with an instant process of preparing me for the emotional and physical isolation that was to follow.
My parents were nowhere to be found, but that didn’t matter.
My brain didn’t even have time to coordinate a thought before my muscles, voice, eyes, and stomach wrote the story of my response. But later on, I was able to notice, put voice and words to the experience, and help my body take a step toward re-coding the threat level.
We can learn to tune in and practice noticing the signals of our body, working with—rather than against—our somatic experiences as part of our emotional growth process.
We can name and notice the experiences of our body, either by saying them out loud or writing them down, practicing nuance and developing the vocabulary of how our body responds to a perceived lack of safety. Are we aware of the microshifts in our heartbeat, breathing, muscle tension, or voice? How does stress present in our body, and what responses present themselves next?
We can notice what regulation feels like, so that we also know when we are dysregulated. Do we have a time and space carved out for a daily practice of a regulation technique, such as yin yoga or one of the breathing practices detailed in Breath by James Nestor?
We can offer ourselves compassion and honor that our bodies are writing part of our emotional story. We all know that thoughts and emotions flow downward to create the experience and actions of the body, but do we offer the same space and awareness for welcoming that our body sensations move upward to create our emotions and thoughts? Can we invite this process rather than jumping to attempts to change our mindset? Can we guide and teach the various parts of us toward co-existence?
We can recognize that this system exists to protect and serve us. And we can say thank you, even when triggered by the mere tone of someone else’s voice.
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