The human body. What a magnificent creation! Whether it be the Adonis on the sports field or the uncontrolled flailing of a newborn baby. A source of both pain and pleasure. Have you really paid attention to your body lately – not in the “do I look fat in this dress?” sense, but in the interior physical experience sense? With all my work with trauma clients I have become keenly aware of the power of paying attention to our body. I will not try to impress with you with all my reading, research, and wonderful rearing- but instead try to narrow it down to the brass tacks, the important stuff that is easy to remember.
We are created in a way that our entire body works together and even communicates what information the subconscious brain is receiving. It all works through the central nervous system and is very efficient in communicating to the brain information necessary mostly for survival. Things like- boy am I hungry; ouch that hurts; something is not safe here; or I really love this – just to list a few. And since our body does not think in words like our brain it uses physical sensations to convey the message. But as we age we have a tendency to become less reliant on our bodies and more reliant on our brains. This is all well and good except through only going cognitive we are missing out on a lot of important information. Information that only our body can convey. So we are going to start very basic, a format that you can easily teach your children.
When your body has an experience it records it in the muscles, it physically remembers it- then the brain interprets it. And experience influences the way the brain interprets the experience. However the body does not put a meaning on the experience, it leaves it in the lower or reptilian brain. The bottom of the brain is our automatic responses, things like breathing, digestion, heart rate, you know the normal stuff we do without thinking. The top of the brain does the thinking, planning, and interpreting. But there is one more important thing the bottom of the brain does- the fight, flight, and freeze responses. These responses are necessary for effective escape or survival in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, our brain is so good at these responses it often overgeneralizes and applies the response to anything that may seem threatening. For example: my baby brother takes my favorite truck and I fight! I imagine a scary monster under my bed so I freeze (and maybe scream to mom when I get my nerve up.) I am told no so I run away. All understandable I suppose but not necessarily effective in solving the problem at hand. But that’s the way our reptilian brain works, it responds without thought- you know automatically. The part most adults are unaware of is that the body is designed to give us a physical warning before it responds- it may be a brief flicker of feeling but it is there if we become aware and listen for it. So, we need to become aware of our bodies so we can hear the tender voice when it speaks.
To listen to the body we first have to become quiet- really quiet, and notice our body. The best way to start such an unusual process is to sit quietly and notice your body: the position on the chair; our feet on the floor; the temperature in the room. Then move to noticing the inside of your body: maybe tension in the shoulders; the rate of your heart; the warmth of your appendages. If you can do that, you are way ahead of the general population. The next step is noticing what your body is doing in times of changing emotions. For example: Getting bad news about a loved one or a personal goal- you may feel it in your heart. Anyone that has ever received negative information has felt it in their heart, your heart actually feels broken! Another example might be if you are looking forward to an activity you might notice it in your stomach, possibly similar to butterflies in the stomach. Or consider, if you have ever been in a dark place and you suddenly feel your skin crawl, it actually feels creepy- that is a form of fear. All these physical feelings are our upper brain trying to give us messages of things to pay attention to. And if we listen the situation may turn out differently than if we are completely unaware.
Now let’s apply this to our children. Children are naturally physical beings, they experience everything physically (this is why they cannot look at the pretty things, they must touch them.) The difficulty for children is the interpretation of the physical sense- they often lack the words to convey the experience, but they are very in tune to the physical feeling. When working with kids I explain their brain similarly to the form above, and we practice noticing our bodies. Then we talk about how different things feel inside and I use an example of anger- this is the strongest sensation in the body typically thus easiest to identify. Some kids have more difficulty than others with this process, and I have not yet come up with a conclusion why, but I do know that everyone can learn to listen to their bodies if they just try. If you are going to try this with your child I suggest trying it at bedtime, when they are stalling going to bed and want to do anything possible to stay awake and engaged. From my experience bed time (and potty training) are the absolute best time to engage with your kids, they are much more receptive and participatory when stuck in one place with no escape. The other times I would practice this is by modeling the behavior in daily conversation, for example: “When you gave me a hug today my tummy got all fuzzy and happy inside.” This example includes the necessary pieces for a young child- cause or trigger event, physical description of how it feels, and labeling of the feeling for future communication. Or you can ask how their experiences feel when they are engaged in the activity.
The goal of teaching this to our children is to help them apply it at times when they are responding in fight/flight/freeze, typically those misbehaving moments. If they can notice the physical warning that they are about to lose it they will eventually be able to choose not to lose it and respond more appropriately. But more importantly, mindfulness, or the awareness of our physical experience, is the foundation of healthy whole personhood. Individuals that practice body awareness will be more prepared for negative and positive experiences in their daily lives. And hopefully if traumatized they will be better prepared to heal quickly.