- Written by Dr. Stephanie Shelburne Dr. Stephanie Shelburne
Have you ever had those moments when you’ve done something or said something that you didn’t mean to do or say? Almost like something else took over your body, your mouth, your mind and like a puppet on a string, you were acting out and unable to stop.
Maybe it was eating that last giant piece of chocolate cake, saying something blatantly unkind, or erupting into a fit of road rage on your way home from work. Then after the proverbial smoke cleared, you were able to look back and think “I just don’t know what got into me”. Doesn't it make you wonder who's really at the wheel when this kind of stuff happens?
As you well know, often once hindsight kicks in and your realize what you've said or done was on the not so cool side of life, you either begin to feel guilty and remorseful that you did what you did, or feel justified and indignant, even though that small voice in the back of your head tells you maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do. Either way now you are in this feedback loop of reactivity. If you've had this experience, you know just how challenging it is to stop the process.
In the world of transpersonal and somatic psychology, this is sometimes referred to as acting from the “painbody” rather than the true self. Your painbody is actually a collection of unconscious defenses that have developed over your lifetime. Usually by the time you are an adult you have a pretty elaborate collection of these defenses.
Therefore when you are responding to something that occurs in the present moment, something that is uncomfortable or painful, you are not simply responding with a clear plate.
You are being influenced by all of the conscious or unconscious pains and discomforts that you have been unable to address or in some cases even identify, throughout your life.
In a sense talking about reacting from the painbody is a perfect illustration of the cliché ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. You have one small unresolved hurt, you add another small unresolved hurt, then another until pretty soon you have a huge and seemingly unmanageable load of unresolved hurts. Your unconscious mind, your painbody, becomes reactive and vigilant, on the lookout to protect you from anymore real or perceived injustices.
Sometimes this vigilance can lead you into addiction, depression, anything that seems like it might help you feel better in the immediate moment. Even though your painbody thinks it’s doing the right thing by being on high alert all the time, what it’s actually doing is creating a cycle of continued pain and unhappiness. It doesn’t allow your cognitive mind to look for anything other than potential problems or dangers.
Soon anything can feel like a huge threat. Someone stepping in front of you in line at the grocery store can feel like a complete challenge to your existence. Your painbody will begin to fume and fret about being marginalized, disregarded, in fact, blatantly disrespected. And here you are again, in this feedback loop of reactivity and unhappiness.
How do you break the cycle and reclaim your life, your true self, your ability to feel happy and content?
With the painbody, changing to a more supportive way of living is not simply a question of ‘willpower’. Chances are it is going to take some very conscious and focused work for a little while. Finding a good practitioner of Somatic or Body-Focused Psychology can be highly valuable. These body focused therapies are excellent for helping you learn how to listen and change the reactivity of your painbody.
Why Body Focused Psychology?
Your painbody is not just about your mind, some of the hurts and defenses that you have acquired are pre-language, acquired when you were an infant or a toddler. These manifest as primary feelings rather than conscious or cognitive thoughts.
Primary feelings are initially just sensations in the body. They happen pretty quickly and are almost immediately translated into an emotional response. --An example of primary feelings would be tightness in the chest, throat and stomach, sweaty palms, increased heartrate.
These sensations begin when the Insula, the small part of our brain responsible for cataloging memories, detects a similar situation to one that was dangerous or painful in our past. They are seemingly instantaneous, taking only 1/1200th of a second to respond to the unconscious assessment.
That's right, only 1/1200th of a second!
As the primary feelings settle into the body, the mind just as instantaneously reads and interprets them, responding with what it identifies as the appropriate correlating emotion. All of this occurs in less than a second or two. So how do you break the pattern?? Definitely there are things you can do if you consistently engage in activities that break that pattern.... the key word is consistency.
Or if you want to get help with changing your life; a body focused psychologist would be the right person for you. They can help you create tools and techniques that will intervene in the process and allow you to consciously establish a different pattern within your body. You will learn to identify different physiological responses and generate a counter response before your emotions are able to take hold and send you on that negative feedback loop mentioned earlier.
As you are able to address your physiological patterns you will then be able to disconnect from the emotional reactivity, establishing recognition of what is an appropriate response to the current situation devoid of historical influence.
Suddenly you are running your life and your emotions rather than the other way around.
Want to try your hand and breaking the cycle of reactivity? Try this:
Activity: Refuting irrational ideas
The next time you find yourself in a situation that feels tense or uncomfortable, try to analyze your immediate thought process. This may sound daunting as you will more than likely have a multitude of conscious and unconscious thoughts happening all at the same time... but give it a try and start with looking at just one of those thoughts. As you look at the thought 'out in the open', ask yourself if it is really true.
Chances are the thought is not really true. If it is not true, take a moment to say what is true and see how that feels in your body.
Example: [repeated or unconscious thought] "People always cut me off in traffic. They are all just idiots!" - it's a pretty good guess that having this thought repeatedly is going to put you on edge several times over. How true is it that people "always" cut you off in traffic. More than likely not true at all or you would not be able to make progress in your vehicle.Chances are there are quite a few other vehicles on the road that have not changed lanes in a way that has contributed to your driving discomfort. Second question, are they really cutting 'you' off? or are they simply in their own world, trying to get somewhere just as you are.
Third question: Are they all really idiots? And who are they? Do you know all the people on the road? If you've ever accidentally changed lanes in front of someone, does that make you an idiot too? You can see where this is going... as you learn to refute your irrational thoughts you can change your primary feelings as well, the benefits of that are decreased blood pressure, increased heart rate variability, increased immune and digestive function, etc, etc... The list goes on.
Give it a try.... if you think you're not sure when you are uncomfortable or when you are having an irrational thought, here is a hint: If you are using words like, should, could, would, always, never, must, have to, "if it were me"...or you're thinking specifically that something was done "to" you...it's a safe guess it's an irrational thought.