What is Your Body Telling You About Stress?


by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT


Have you talked to your therapist about body sensations before?


This tweet always gets me.


When I first learned about anxiety, it struck me most how much cognitive space we use to process an emotion that is rooted in our physical experience. Anxiety is focused on finding an 'answer' for itself in thought patterns, in twisting and turning within our minds. Our brains can fall into traps of our own making, or the making of those around us, and we can feel the impact of the weight of beliefs to which we don't even fully subscribe.


For instance, many of us don't fully subscribe to the phrase: "I am worthless."


However, all of us can resonate with feeling worthless from time to time (some of us more than others). And even when we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are not worthless - we can still feel it.


Our bodies, however, are a different story. When you feel stressed, notice what your body feels like.

When we haven't practiced this, we may be unaware of it. We may not remember what our body feels like under stress, in sadness, in anger, in frustration, even in joy and happiness.

When you feel stressed, notice what your body feels like.

Let's try it right now, in fact!

Some meditation practices will use what's called a "body scan". Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you can do this. It can take only a few seconds and it's very easy.


Start from the top of your head. All you have to do is draw your attention from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, and just notice things. Look for:

  • tightness / tension or looseness

  • temperature, flashes of heat or cold

  • moisture / dryness

  • pain / soothed places

  • movement sensations

  • restlessness or lethargy

  • heaviness or lightness

  • sensory sensitivity (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)

Everyone is a little bit different. Some people tend to hold tension in certain places, such as their neck or their back. You may notice that you have had pain in certain places for a long time without really 'listening' to it. You may feel that 'rock in your stomach' feeling. When you're stressed, you can feel short of breath or your legs can't stop moving.


Okay, now. Note 3 major areas that feel especially 'present' to you right now, such as "stomach, neck, and hands". If they are present to you, it means that they stand out or seem particularly interesting to you. You may not be able to explain why, and that's okay.


What is the metaphor of each of those body parts for you?

Culturally, we may all have ideas of our bodies and what they represent to us. Our heads carry our intellect, our decisions, our vision. Our backs carry burdens. Our legs are movement and therefore, perhaps freedom.


Like I said, everyone is a little bit different, or there may be variations of what your body says versus what it may say in another person's.


In some mindfulness practices, we talk about breathing "into" that place in your body. Simply put, we combine focusing our attention on this part of our body, then breathing intentionally and slowly. It's our way of saying, "I see you, I care about you, I am connected to you" to that place in our body.


Try extending that care into places of tension in your body today. Notice if there is shift, even if it doesn't happen right away. Practice it a few times a day to get into the rhythm of it. Ask your therapist about this, if they have any experience of body awareness, somatic therapy, or mindfulness practices that address this.


There are many different ways to address these sensations, and with the connection you have with your therapist, you can find new ways to get to know yourself and alleviate your stress.

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