I’ve talked before about how stress is not just experienced at a psychological level – the physical and emotional effects are just as important. Too often, our bodily responses are overlooked in favour of a more intellectual focus on what we are thinking. The somatic (relating to the body) side of our response to situations should be informing far more of our behaviours.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular approaches in the psychotherapeutic arena, but its focus on cognition and behaviour to the exclusion of all else is not enough. Stress does not just impact these areas but also has a deep-rooted influence on our bodies.
I find this conceptualisation, by Peter Levine, of the different elements of phenomenological experience a useful tool. Our perception of any experience is comprised of a combination of all of these factors, we blend them together to create a holistic understanding.
When functioning unimpeded by stress, we process the image of what is going on, the feeling or affect and sensations that accompany that experience, our behavioural impulses attached to that experience, and the meaning to which we ascribe the event.
But stress creates a fragmentation of the coherence of experience and these elements become disrupted. For example, in someone undergoing a panic attack, the sensation and feeling around what is happening to them are likely dominating to the exclusion of the image, meaning and behavioural impulse. This leads to an incoherent, discombobulating experience.
Without addressing all facets, including the bodily area of our conscious experience, balance cannot be restored. If the imbalance continues over a long period of time, an elevated stress response gradually becomes more embedded within our psychological and physical response to become a lasting trauma.
To avoid this we need to learn how to really ‘be’ in our bodies. This requires us to stop ignoring all of the signals being presented to us via physical sensation and our emotional response to things. Our bodies are adept at throwing up early red flags when stressors are taking hold. When writing about emotional agility, Susan David talks about emotions as data to be processed and our bodily sensations need to be considered in the same way.
To avoid the trauma of long-term stress we must learn to take notice of the information our body is giving us and intervene on our own behalf as early as possible. I am a firm believer that preventative action is the best approach when it comes to stress and if you notice any of these signs of stress taking hold in your life, now is the time to take action.
You can read my recommendations for some physiological stress management strategies and please, if you want to learn more about my approach to handling stress, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on 07837993241 and let’s get the conversation started.
(Image source: Albert Wong)