Sensations are the most basic language of the body.
They give us immediate information about what our body-unconscious is experiencing in a given moment.
Our nervous systems react to experiences automatically to keep us safe. Getting comfortable with our involuntary physical responses connects our consciousness with our body-unconscious, allowing us more possibilities than our default reactions.
We can learn to discern whether we are getting activated: a fear response that helps us be alert and act quickly, or having a relaxation response that enables us to rest, digest our food, and repair our bodies.
Our Fear Response kicks in when our body senses a threat.
We Fight, Flee and Freeze.
Sensations of this state include:
Fast heart beat
Shallow, quick even breathing
Tingly arms and hands, legs and feet
Urge to move or hold still in order to get safe
Our Relaxation Response is engaged when we feel safe and connected.
We Rest, Digest and Repair.
Sensations of this state include:
Gurgling in the abdomen
Varied and easy breathing
Warm blush to the skin
Core softening and flow in the whole body
Hunger or thirst
Pleasant vibration or tingling anywhere or everywhere in the body
Both responses can save our lives. Both responses help us protect ourselves and preserve our well-being. Our bodies respond to distress with the Fear Response. We soothe and restore our bodies through the Relaxation Response. If we stayed in one state or the other, we would compromise either safety or the ability to restore ourselves.
Acknowledging the goodness of both responses in our bodies helps us value and discern what our bodies are trying to tell us.
If you notice your heart is pounding, your breath is shallow, and your hands are sweaty, chances are your nervous system is activated. The automatic part of you is saying, “Hey, pay attention! Something is going on and we may have to act fast in order to keep us safe!” We get a boost of stress hormones, blood supply is directed away from our core to our extremities, our heart beats faster and breathing becomes measured and efficient, and our muscles tense, all with the purpose to zip up our energy and give us strength to act. Thank goodness we can respond this way to help get ourselves safe when we need to! Then, when the threat has passed, we may feel shakey, have to go to the bathroom urgently, or express strong emotions to discharge the extra energy we created to help ourselves get safe. Our bodies adjust back to a state where we can re-orient to safety, connect with others and go along our way feeling calmer.
If you notice yourself yawning, your stomach gurgling, and your shoulders drooping, chances are your nervous system is winding down toward relaxation and may be ready to eat or sleep. Having plenty of time in the state of relaxation daily keeps us strong and fortified, ready to face what life brings us.
Benefits of the Relaxation Response include:
Decreased stress hormones
Lower heart rate and blood pressure
Optimal digestion and nutritional uptake
Improved immune response
Promotion of cell regeneration and healing
Breathing becomes free and varied
Increased feelings of ease, belonging and connection
Creativity and clear-thinking
A well-regulated nervous system gently waves back and forth throughout a typical day within an optimal range between these two responses. We can be alert, respond to perceived stressors, discharge excess energy, recover and relax many times a day. We are more alert when we are driving or speaking in front of a crowd, and we relax at lunch time when we sit quietly at our desk, or as we savor a sunny walk.
In this optimal range we feel:
Calm and interested
Engaged and able to focus
Tuned in and connective
Empathetic toward others
Emotionally accessible and stable
Tuning in to sensations gives you clues as to whether your body-unconscious is feeling safe enough or not safe. Very often we tend to deny or ignore what we feel, instead of valuing the truth of the body’s experience. Once we are aware of the automatic responses we are having, we have the possibilities of choice, change and healing.
The Vocabulary of Sensation
Noticing your felt sense and exploring the right words to describe the feeling is part of healthy inner awareness. During your bodywork session, these words might come in handy to help you articulate sensations you experience:
bloated blocked breathless
brittle bubbly burning buzzy
chilled airy clammy closed
congested constricted contracted
cool cozy crampy damp
dense dizzy dull elastic
electric empty energized
expanding faint fluid
flushed flutter flowing
frantic frozen full furry
gurgling hard heavy
icy intense itchy jagged
jittery jumpy jumbly
knotted loose light moist
open paralyzed pounding
pulsing pressure prickly puffy
pulled quaking quiet
quivering radiating ragged
raw rolling shaky sharp
shimmering shivery shudder
silky smooth soft breathing
spasming spinning sticky
still stretchy stringy strong
suffocating sweaty tender
tense thick throbbing tickly
tight tingling skin tightness
trembly hot twitchy
vibration warm wobbly
full of breath gurgly sleepy
teary shimmery piercing
restricted gravely sore
moving nauseous numb
Based on material from Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute.