"Listen to your body." I'm hearing that advice a lot right now. I love this advice. I practice it.
When I was in an anxiety inducing relationship, I realized that the anxiety was telling me to get out. So I left (not as smoothly as I am making it sound). When I went on a date with another man and this same anxiety came up, I knew what to do: leave.
That's the joy of listening to my body. I don't make the same mistake twice.
But there are caveats.
I also get anxiety right before I surf, when I'm in a new group of friends, in the midst of conflict with a loved one, opening work email…
So it's not really as simple as listening to my body and doing what it says. Sometimes my body is wrong. And often, my mind misinterprets the message.
Our bodies aren't always reliable.
Trauma impacts our body's default state and can make us feel constantly in danger.
Our family dynamics have taught our bodies what is normal and can mistakenly put us in danger.
Evolution can have us convinced we are about to die when we are standing safely inside the top floor of a tall building.
Our minds can override our body’s message without us even realizing it.
For me, adrenaline can be so uncomfortable that I misinterpret it as fear. It's been a long road for me to differentiate between nervous excitement and straight up fear.
And sometimes my anxiety is lowest in dangerous situations. I sometimes misinterpret an easy dynamic as a safe one. This usually happens when we are with people who remind us of family members.
if I were to listen to my low level anxiety, I might interpret it as a good sign. And I would interpret my high anxiety before surfing as a bad sign.
But it's more complex than that.
I have spent a lot of time examining my body's relationship with anxiety: what is it telling me? How do I know when I am in real danger? How do I know when safety is stifling?
Figuring out how to listen to my body has liberated me:
It's easier to take risks while surfing
I know when to stand up for myself versus when I am being defensive
I stopped beating myself up for not wanting to hang out with people who are nice but make me feel weird
when it's hard to sleep, I know it's just my body helping me stay on top of adult responsibilities
weirdest thing of all? I feel less anxious.
And more importantly – I feel less reactive when I am anxious.
Below is an infograph I made for myself on how to listen to my body’s anxiety messages.
Here's how it shakes out for me:
If anxiety seems super low, it doesn't mean I conquered it. It means I am avoiding all risk and suppressing my own desires. This lowers my self-esteem.
If anxiety seems super high, it doesn't mean I have transcended fear and am an adrenaline junkie. It means I've been feeling anxious for a while and am now having trouble differentiating between healthy risk and self-destructive ones. This makes me feel on edge and critical of myself.
I am at my best when I feel nervous excitement; I am dipping my toes in the water just outside my comfort zone and slowly wading in. I know I can always get out of the water if I need to, but I am surprised and excited to find out how much I can handle. This makes me feel confident and proud.
Want to experience anxiety as a signal instead of an alarm?
Make a diagram for your own body's relationship with anxiety.
It might not be a Venn diagram, like mine. It could be a spectrum, a graph, or a beautiful metaphor involving mountains and the ocean. It will help you understand the signals your body is sending you so that you can take advantage of your body's wisdom.
This exercise will make you more decisive, clearheaded, and confident. You won't feel the need to justify your actions or get permission. You'll be fully aligned with what is right for you.
If you are getting stuck, ask a friend to do this exercise with you. It's easier (and more fun) to explore anxiety when you are with someone else.
1. Sit for a moment with each of these words and pinpoint where you feel them in your body. I have some questions to jumpstart the process:
adrenaline (where do you see yourself? On a ski lift? About to go on stage? Now notice where you feel that in your body)
anxiety (are you opening work email? About to miss the flight?)
excitement (how is the scenario different from the anxiety scenario? Adrenaline scenario?)
safety (who do you feel safe around? how does your body feel when you are around this person?)
bored (what thoughts come up when you feel bored? What physical sensations?)
2. Consider how your body feels around your parents. Which of the above words come up?
3. Consider a previous relationship. Which of the above words come up?
4. Consider your favorite way to spend a Sunday. Which of the above words come up?
5. Think about going to work Monday morning. Which of the above words come up?
6. Write down anything else coming up for you: sibling dynamics, how you feel on vacation, if my word choices don't resonate and you want to replace them, etc.
7. It is time to make your infograph. What do you want your mind to know about your body's messages?
Play around here. When do you have swirling energy in your chest? When do you have butterflies in your stomach? When does it feel like there is an elephant sitting on your chest? Which of these sensations are a signal that you are about to have fun? Which sensations are telling you to get out fast? How can you turn this into a diagram?
Share your infographics with me on Instagram, tag @johannahbogartcoach
I know thinking and talking about anxiety is really unpleasant. Sometimes just typing the word makes me feel a little anxious.
But these sensations are here to help us.
And the better we are at recognizing the sensations, the more we can receive the help.
I am processing all of this with you. I will let you know what else I discover too.
Love to you and your bodies,