When people talk about mental health or mental wellness, there is usually a conversation about certain thoughts or feelings that we want to disappear. While I don’t want to discredit that approach, I’d like to offer up another perspective: Listen to your body’s internal smoke alarm.
Emotional difficulties like depression and anxiety can be spotted by certain thoughts:
“This will never end.”
“I’m all alone.”
“I’ll never get it all done.”
“I’m a terrible father.”
“No one respects or loves me.”
Pick your poison, but everyone’s got shades of negative thinking swimming around upstairs. These thoughts usually travel with some strong feelings: Fear, sadness, anger, guilt, or emptiness.
Let’s take a different approach: I’d like to invite you to notice the bodily sensations that accompany these thoughts and feelings. In other words, where do you feel stress, anxiety, depression, etc.? If we let them, these intense physical sensations that accompany our emotional distress can be incredibly helpful! Here’s how:
Step 1: Figure out the smoke detector
When your body starts to send you uncomfortable signals, it’s like the smoke detector going off in your home. When you move into a new house or apartment, it’s important to learn where the smoke detectors are, and make sure it has batteries! For some of us, myself included, our stomach or gut is like a thermostat for our internal processes. For you, it might be in your chest, back, or head. Next time you find yourself feeling depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, scared, or stressed, notice where and how your body decides to let you know something isn’t right.
Step 2: Make a plan
Just like in your home, the smoke detector doesn’t put out the fire, it just sends a deafening signal that action needs to be taken. If you are like me, I’ve spent hours feeling my body’s smoke detector and not doing anything about it. When you were in school, you had to do fire drills, and I don’t imagine your teacher let you sit in the room all by yourself in case of a fire.
- Maybe that tightness in your chest is your body’s lovely reminder that loneliness isn’t the way to live life, and it is time to reach out to a friend.
- Maybe that hole in your stomach is the timer signaling your need for physical activity such as a walk outside, yoga, or weightlifting.
- Maybe that ache in your back means it is time to engage in a productive hobby like cooking, music, or art.
- Maybe that numb, lifeless feeling in your shoulders is a reminder to do something good for someone else.
As a note, it’s not best practice to make plans for an emergency in the middle of a fire. Make a plan of some things to try before emotional distress comes to visit, not in the middle of a fire drill.
Step 3: Practice
We’re all guilty of being stuck in some unhelpful patterns. Getting out of those takes time, practice, and sometimes a little help from our friends. The good news is your body won’t stop reminding you when a change needs to be made, as long as you’ll listen to the smoke detector and be willing to respond to it. Seek out support from friends, family, a mentor, or a counselor. Write out your plans for responding to your body’s natural signals of emotional distress.
My hope for you is that when that sinking hole in your stomach shows up, you won’t see it as depression showing up to claim victory over your joy. My hope is that you’ll understand it as a need that needs to be met, and that you’ll feel empowered to respond.
By: Eric Feltman, MA
Covenant Counseling Center