Day 17: Leaning in to Your Feelings Has anything like the following ever happened to you? Your boss comes in to your office – he wants talk about the “extra-long” lunch breaks that you’ve been taking. Suddenly your back pain starts ramping up. Your boyfriend just asked you to move in with him, and you wake up the next morning with a gnawing headache. Your son dropped spaghetti on the carpet, and as you rush to get baking soda, you feel shooting heartburn. These situations are all obviously stressful, but what is stress? Stress is our body’s reaction to a perceived psychological threat. And these threats can activate our brains’ danger signals. Yesterday we focused on emotions, but there are other feelings that we can perceive as psychologically dangerous as well. Today I’m going to talk about three of them, then discus how to overcome psychological threats in general – in other words, how to reduce your stress. Conflict Perhaps growing up, your parents fought all the time…or they never fought at all, or for some other reason you came to learn that conflict was not okay. As a result, any time you have a confrontation or disagreement, your anxiety spikes. Maybe you even avoid these situations altogether. If this is the case, your brain may have learned that conflict is dangerous. Intimacy Maybe you grew up in an environment where there wasn’t a lot of warmth, or you lost a family member early on, or you were betrayed by someone you trusted. There are many reasons we could have learned to fear intimacy. If you have a difficult time making yourself vulnerable, or you don’t seem to get close to people easily, your brain may interpret the feeling of intimacy as unsafe. Disorder If you grew up surrounded by chaos, or didn’t feel safe in your own house, it probably gave you a feeling of being internally out of control. This is a pretty terrible feeling, and we often overcompensate by trying to control our external environment. Do you have a tendency to micromanage? Do you get stressed out when your schedule isn’t perfectly set? If so, your brain may feel unsafe when things are out of order – an unchecked email or a piece of trash on the floor might give you anxiety. Overcoming psychological threats Think about what your mind might perceive as psychologically dangerous: Confrontation? Intimacy? Guilt? Chaos? Stillness? In response to these perceived threats, we have a rise in anxiety…and our natural inclination is to run away. To avoid conflict, we’ll people-please. To avoid intimacy, we’ll pull back. To avoid disorder, we’ll clean up. Avoidance is a short-term strategy. It reduces our anxiety, but it just reinforces that these states are dangerous. In these moments, instead of avoiding, we can use somatic tracking to attend to the feeling of anxiety that arises. Was there a minor typo in a text that you just sent? What if instead of correcting it, you took the opportunity to breathe in to your anxiety? Did your friend ask you to pick up him up from the airport at 2 AM? What if instead of saying yes, you turn him down while attending to your internal state? Our instinct is to run from the anxiety, but if we embrace the physical sensations, we communicate a message of safety. And over time, we can come to experience any of these feelings without activating our brains’ danger signals. As a fun example of “embracing the anxiety,” here’s a clip from “The Simpsons.” Bart – not usually a beacon of emotional maturity – has a sudden burst of insight. With a little help from Lisa, he uses somatic tracking to lean in to the anxiety around his feelings of guilt.