There is something about feeling miserable that seems to be uniquely human. Emotional misery seems to be a gift that humans get along with being human. Okay, I have to back off from that and say that I really don’t know about other primates, and I have also heard recently that elephants exhibit behaviour that can be interpreted as grieving. But when I think about my goofy Labrador retriever, Max, I don’t see him suffering emotional pain because of something he did, or something I did, or something that might happen in the future.
However, the people I know all are capable of that kind of suffering. Our capacity to think has permitted us to think about things that actually make us FEEL bad. Have you ever noticed that you can be going about your day, all is well, everything is normal, and you suddenly have a thought….and all hell breaks loose in your inner life. Perhaps the thought is an obviously catastrophic one (“Maybe my plane will crash when I take my trip next month”) or maybe it is less obvious (“My partner won’t like my new haircut”) but then it cascades into a whole series of thoughts (“And if he doesn’t like my haircut, maybe he won’t like me, and he’ll leave me, and I’ll be alone and how will I make it, and nobody will ever love me, and I won’t be able to survive…”).
That might sound like an exaggeration but I swear to you, it isn’t. While we often are unaware (mindless) of the cascade of thoughts, images, and subsequent sensations and feelings in our bodies, they are still happening. And that’s one of the ways in which a vague dislike of your new haircut can turn into a full-blown emotional meltdown.
Now we are all intelligent people, of course, and we KNOW in our intellectual selves that our partners are not likely to leave us and we are not likely to be destroyed because of a bad haircut. The thing is, the part of the brain/mind/body that is doing this thinking and feeling is NOT our higher intellectual selves. We react on a body (somatic) level to our thoughts and also to our body sensations. Many body functions have associated sensations that are just below the level of our awareness. Your body is busy all the time maintaining itself; keeping proper blood chemistry, blood pressure, hormonal balance, particular cellular tensions and various chemical and electrical communications. When something is a bit out of whack in this process of homeostasis, then you may feel a bit “off.” You probably have no idea why, so your mind gets busy developing some cause. Humans do that; it is how we make sense of the world. However, these perceived “causes” may actually be irrelevant to what you are experiencing. If you are already feeling “off” and you get a bad haircut, well, you know what can happen.
So… How do we prevent emotional meltdowns, with all of their pain and suffering and the interpersonal fallout that is inevitable? How do we separate the thoughts that hurt us from our normal, everyday functioning?
First, we start to become aware of ourselves as BODIES. We are not a person who happens to live in a body, but the body you live in actually IS you. Any increasing level of body awareness is helpful; the practice of mindfulness, meditation, contemplative movement such as yoga, all of these practices can help develop body awareness. At the same time, one can learn to watch the activity of the mind. Watching isn’t the same as getting involved in it, but is simply observing….”Oh, there I go, thinking…..Oh, yes, that’s a memory. Oh, I can see that my mind is trying to make a to-do list again…” and gently bringing your attention back to awareness.
Tomorrow: ways to use a bioenergetic approach to developing self awareness..
By the way, if you are interested in how our bodies shape our minds, you might like Antonio Damasio’s book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness.