What is an emotion? How do we feel? Answering these questions was the inspiration for my comic, Anxiety Is Really Strange.
I am bodyworker, it's an important identity for me.
I have been fortunate to train in many modalities: chiropractic, shiatsu, craniosacral therapy and TRE (trauma releasing exercises). Also lots of yoga, meditation, skiing and more recently running.
Link between body and mind
I am deeply curious about how minds and bodies interact. I am passionate about working through the body to promote health, not just physical health but emotional and mental health as well.
I don’t think these things are ever separate.
Helping people with anxiety has traditionally been seen as the territory of mental health professionals. Anxiety is most commonly framed as a psychological problem.
- See also: Mental Health Today's 'Disorders Explained' information hub
My clinical experience for over 20 years has been that by safely connecting to the body, some people feel less anxious.
My comic is an attempt to summarise my understanding of why embodiment is a key tool to slow down feelings of anxiety and panic.
Connecting to our body
Another trigger for my book was reading the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017) on how emotions are made. Her ‘constructed emotion’ model, rooted in decades of research, pulls together lots of great neuroscience and philosophy.
Reading Barrett gave me renewed confidence that the business of feeling, however tricky, is central to health.
Many people assume feeling our body is natural and easy. It’s not.
It takes a lot of practice and skill to connect to our body. We can easily slip into habits and fantasies when we perceive the inner world of sensations.
Buddhist scholar Reggie Ray (2016) goes so far as to say: 'In modern culture, all of us live in a state of disembodied abstraction’.
Feelings are a bridge between our body and complex emotions
There is now lots of great science on the value of exploring feelings (Barrett 2017). The inability to consistently map the internal state of the body is linked to persistent pain, anxiety states and being stuck in trauma responses.
It is useful to differentiate basic body phenomena - physiological shifts in chemicals, nervous system reflexes, muscular tension patterns, and, behaviours - from the complex processes of consciousness.
Emotions, memories and thought all co-emerge, created by our flexible brains, as we extract meaning from body events. ‘There is physiology and then complexity’ Haines 2018.
In response to a stimulus our body gears up for action, often defaulting to simple protective reflexes such as fight-or-flight or freeze. Our brain attempts to quickly and efficiently predict what is happening.
Feelings are a bridge between physical body properties and complex emotions. We use our past experiences to continually create memories, emotions and meaning from our internal feelings.
Choosing our response
To successfully work with anxiety I believe it can be useful to become skillful at managing events in the body.
For sure, we need to do simple things to ensure our resources are not overwhelmed - try to eat well, socialise, sleep and de-stress.
But, we can also learn to reframe our responses to the protective reflexes that can hijack our functioning.
This is best summed up by Viktor Frankl ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’
Learning how to feel
Feelings are important and are the foundation of knowing and perception. By learning how to feel we can self-regulate seemingly out of control processes in the body.
Some things feels right or, too often, feel wrong. But, ultimately, it is only a feeling and we can choose our response.
We can learn to not get lost and stuck in protective reflexes and generate a window of opportunity to come out of anxiety.