I have recently been feeling my heart beat, which when you are not used to feeling it, tends to feel quite alarming. When I check my pulse, it is clear that my heart rate is not incredibly high, nor even elevated most of the time. Elevated pulse/heart rate happens during exercise and sympathetic nervous system arousal, e.g. anxiety, stress, frustration etc.
I have to say, I don’t much like the feeling of feeling my heart beat, but in combination with mindfulness (non-judgemental acceptance in the moment) that this is what it is like in this instant but that it will change, I am OK with it. When my heart rate is elevated, I accept that it is and then question; am I stressed or angry or frustrated or anxious? I cannot distinguish between these without analyzing the context. Once I work that out, I accept that I can either remain in that emotion or I can change how I am thinking / reacting to the context that provokes that emotion.
For example, recently I was driving to work and a large expensive car cut in-front of me without indicating,m requiring me to slam my brakes on. My initial reaction seemed to be panic, as my heart was racing (confirmed by smart watch) and my hands shaking. However, I reassured myself I was not hurt, the car was fine and took a few deep breaths whilst focusing on feeling my chest rise and fall. Knowing myself, it was likely that I would then get angry, but I chose to ask why the driver acted in that way in a more positive light. “Perhaps they are running late for work and are worried about losing their job.” This enabled me to let go of my negative reactions to the event whilst accepting it had been unpleasant for me.
If you are also on the autism spectrum, you will know just how hard it is for us to let go of things, but… mindful body awareness really can help us to do this if we use it in conjunction with deliberate strategies around positive thinking or minimizing instead of catastrophising.
Many people assume that they (or their kids) are well connected to their bodies, that they are aware of all their body signals, feelings and emotions. However, for many of us, including people who are autistic, people who have experienced trauma, people with a variety of disabilities, people raised without positive adult-child interactions and so on, this is certainly not the case.
Whenever I see someone wearing a t-shirt without any sweater, coat etc in mid-winter I wonder if it is because their internal thermostat is set differently or because they literally don’t feel the cold. When you don’t feel that your body is cold when your body is in fact cold, this is because of poor interoception, in other words poor body awareness (or there may be another neurological or biological reason for a small minority of people).
The great thing about body awareness is that we know you can learn it, and thanks to neuroscientists and their work on neuroplasticity, we know that learning mindful body awareness can train the brain to notice and be aware of your body more and more over time. In other words by doing specific things whilst being talked through them or talking yourself through them you teach yourself to notice the feelings or body signals associated with those things.
As an example – if you hold an ice cube in one hand and a cube of room temperature jelly in the other (not recommended if you have a sensory aversion to jelly or ice) and you are talked through focusing on the feeling in each hand, on the palms fingers, the different sensations experienced due to the different temperatures. If you then repeat this again (and again) you will find it easier each time to notice something, to be truly aware, to experience mindful body awareness.
If you want to try this out for yourself, have a look at the PDF of activities on the resources page.
Once you are using interoception activities regularly you will develop a better sense of connectedness to yourself and to others/the environment around you. Becoming aware of how your body feels and responds can be a bit strange initially and it takes time to be comfortable with it. However, it is amazing to know how you feel or how you are responding to an event or other stimulus (sensory input/person around you etc). It is also very powerful to know when your emotional state is changing before it hits fight/flight/freeze, so you can actually prevent your meltdowns from occurring (though you may still need to process the event or experience in order to ensure meltdown is not merely delayed a bit).
When you know your emotional state is changing you can respond to that change in helpful or unhelpful ways. Helpful ways will be ways that lead to less stress and fewer difficulties, unhelpful ways increase issues and emotional distress. For example, when I know I am starting to get angry because my fitbit signals a huge increase in my heart rate, I can choose to ignore the signal or react. My reaction could be to do something distracting and/or something to bring my heart rate down or unhelpfully to yell at the person I am getting angry with. Yelling is unhelpful because it should not be the first step in trying to solve an emotional discord, walking away or getting a drink of water or casually doing an interoception activity with my feet (or hands under the table) or a breathing activity are helpful because they will prevent the build up of anger and focus me on connecting to myself and enable me to connect to others.
Give it a go using the resources – even if you just pick one thing to do once a day and then try to see how much more aware you are of your body during that one interoception activity over time.