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Learning to Check In with Self

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

Much of my work, it seems, is helping people tune into themselves. We are so busy, so overwhelmed, living in fight-or-flight, that we dissociate from ourselves, we #disembody, and lose touch with who we are and even how we feel. We disconnect until we are sick and our body demands it. We remain in relationships that violate us until we feel empty. We fail to recognize our body becoming so out of balance that we feel crazy and dysfunctional. Learning to pay attention to our own being is integral to healing.


Consider that if you don't know what you feel or even what is most authentic to you - not your label, your title, your role, but you at the deepest point within yourself - then you don't know your #boundaries and you won't recognize early symptoms of dis-ease. The real irony here is that when you're in the thick of this life, you can't even recognize it because you really haven't tuned for so long that everything seems normal, and if you are successful, it's even more misleading.



Emotional dysregulation is at the core of Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder, but it also plays a part in borderline personality disorder, narcissism, anxiety, depression, panic attacks and even trauma. As a child myself, my parents were very #dysregulated. My father was very #narcissistic and my mother very dissociated. They clearly had their own traumas. Neither were emotionally available, and both were unpredictable.


My mother experimented a great deal during my younger childhood years, as she tried to heal from her own past. She was often drunk or had men in our home who weren't always safe. She certainly didn't protect us so I learned to observe tones of voice, body mannerisms, mood, even the slightest facial expressions and my father taught me to do this consistently because he could go from being funny and playful to cruel with the slightest breath. Many with childhoods like mine call themselves #empaths because they are so in tune, they can almost read the thoughts and feelings of others. The reality though is that what we've done is learn to pick up on the slightest cues of other's emotions in attempt to regulate our environments, to keep ourselves safe.


My childhood transitioned into a marriage with a man who has autism, and who also had severe anxiety. He required a great deal of regulation because true to his #neurodivergency, he really struggled with managing stimulation; therefore, as his partner, I worked to regulate his environment so he felt safe. We created a few children together, each with some level of neurodivergency and so the pattern continued. It consumed me.


Interestingly, my current husband also struggles to regulate his emotions, but I suspect this is valid for most of society. My husband's parents provided for him and he had no ominous abuse within his childhood home, but his mother wasn't emotionally available. He and his two brothers were expected to be men. There was no tolerance for emotions and cuddling wasn't appropriate. They grew up in a family of go play, don't be seen or heard. Bottle it up. Bury it down. Build up walls. Take care of yourself.


These walls though make connection hard, even with oneself. When you have to make yourself the priority all the time because no one else is connecting with you or meeting your emotional needs, then you learn to move through life a bit stoic. You disconnect with your feelings in effort to be productive, to get things done, to be a success. Emotions only slow us down and make us vulnerable, right? When there is no awareness of feelings though, there is no ability to regulate.


What if We Want Growth?


If we want to evolve and grow and improve our connections, build relationships, really find peace within ourselves, and rid our body of all dis-ease, then we do need to become more aware of our sensations and the messages we are getting from our body and our minds. We need to check in, gather some awareness, acknowledge your inner knowing, but believe it or not, this is only the very beginning. Many don't recognize their own emotions or needs whatsoever; they're overwhelmed and busy, disconnected, but this is an imperative prerequisite to any further growth. And we aren't just checking in with our feelings either, but also our thoughts. As we grow and evolve, we learn to become the observer of our thoughts, recognizing we are not our actual thoughts and we learn to recognize our feelings as our guide for protecting ourselves.


Emotion Theory


Believe it or not, there is a growing field of emotion science and the theories here tend to lean into either body-oriented theories or mind-oriented theories. At one end of the continuum is bodily cues and sensations that are key sources and explanations for our emotional experience, and at the other end is the cognitive process (Price & Hooven, 2018). It has been asked if emotional feelings are pre-conscious, arriving fully formed and physically coherent, and then later interpreted by the mind to be named and understood. It has also been asked if the case instead is that cognitive interpretations of self and context trigger emotional responses that will organize and energize an emotional response, with consciousness of bodily cues and feelings follow? Maybe both are true.


Guess what else though; there are theorists, specific to embodiment philosophy and anthropology, who argue that one must bring the body back into conceptualization of the self, which more recently has also become the view supported by neuroscientists specializing in #interoception (Price & Hooven, 2018). The body and mind interact in complex ways to influence each other as they are expressed and understood as emotion.


Interoception is the perception of sensations from inside the body and includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function such as heart beat, respiration, satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions, and much of these perceptions remain unconscious (Price & Hooven, 2018). When you are really stressed for example, it can be hard to discern #fatigue, hunger, and even the need to use the restroom. We get very disembodied and out of touch, finding bruises and cuts we didn't even remember experiencing. Most of these inner sensations are unconscious, but it is our interceptive awareness that processes these so they can become available to our conscious awareness, and ultimately, our interoception awareness is what empowers our emotional regulation.


Interoception Awareness & Emotional Regulation


Understanding this growing science has helped open new avenues for working with difficult to treat or intractable emotional disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even substance use disorder (Price & Hooven, 2018). Research regarding the neurobiological impact of stress has recognized that adversity and trauma influence our emotional experience and internal emotion-related processes and awareness. Those who suffer persistent or traumatic stress have identifiable adaptions in their autonomic nervous system, sometimes increased awareness and sometimes less aware. Ultimately though, integrating the body into therapeutic practices has become a higher priority as our understanding is growing in how vital this is to our emotional experience and regulation.


Sensations from the body underlie most if not all of our emotional feelings, particularly those which are most intense, and most basic for our survival (Price & Hooven, 2018). As a mother of a son with autism, this really resonates with me. My fourteen-year-old struggles to recognize temperature, so he is the child who will wear a sweatshirt in the middle of summer, out in the sun, or pass out from heat stroke because he doesn't recognize that he's becoming overheated. He also doesn't have a lot of perception for pain, so that he will sustain an injury or even have an ear infection and not really mention it until the infection has advanced into the bones behind his ears requiring admission to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics. The thing is that when we can't regulate these sensations, we aren't going to be able to regulate sensations directed at social integration, such as positive emotion, affection, and intimacy. Even fear, anger, and aggression get lost in transmission.


Interoceptive awareness - the ability to identify, access, understand, and respond appropriately to the patterns of internal signals - provides a distinct advantage to engage in life challenges and on-going adjustment (Price & Hoover, 2018).

If you have been in fight-or-flight for quite some time, you may have some level of #addiction to your stress. It provides you the dopamine you need to function, to stay motivated and engaged. Often this looks like someone wrapping themselves around their job, and then coming home to alcohol, drugs, maybe food, or even sex to wind down. Extreme sports may even be your addiction, your supply of #dopamine, although a bit more socially acceptable. While living this lifestyle, it is exceedingly hard to regulate oneself.


Breaking free of this pattern means finding dopamine in ways that don't drive your levels up so high or so quickly, and then ultimately causing you to crash and burn later, just so you can repeat the cycle again and again. This is exhausting for you mind and body, and essentially makes you numb to emotions, so the goal is to even out your highs and lows. It's easy to identify those who are maxed out, living in fight-or-flight, because they can't settle for #massage, lay in shavasana after a yoga flow, just relax in a hammock, or meditate. I couldn't do simple things like figure out how to set up a new printer, call and set up appointments, and I sure as hell wasn't going to wait on hold for anything, even to figure out my taxes.


My journey towards healing my nervous system was through talk therapy, then watercoloring, then I found #yoga and #hiking, and today, I do less talk therapy and more dancing. My needs are more somatic than cognitive, although I'll always invest in both. Find your own path. Consider Tai chi, pranayama, relaxing in a bath, eating mindfully, sitting by the pool, reading, and certainly, expressing yourself through art.


It's also important to eat when you're hungry, nap when you need rest, stretch when you're tight, go to the bathroom when you first sense the need - paying attention to common body signals will not just make you more aware of your own bodily sensations, but will help you learn to honor yourself, regaining your own trust in yourself.


Notice Your Body


Many times paying attention to the cues within your body is the best way to start to tune into yourself. Maybe you notice times of increased #anxiety, worry, ruminating thoughts, negative feelings, and overwhelm? Maybe you aren't noticing that, but you notice your shoulders getting tight? Maybe you get #headaches and you can't figure out why? Maybe an upset belly, or utter exhaustion? These are messages from your body telling you loudly and clearly that it's time to step back, take a good look at your circumstances, and reprioritize.


As you become more aware, you can then better identify your body's response to various foods, even identify how various lifestyle habits or relationships and social or professional settings impact you. It may even be that you start to recognize where your body holds stress, and how you feel during different phases of your cycles.


There are times too that maybe you notice your response to stimulation was out of proportion to the circumstance, or maybe even erroneous or inappropriate with respect to the stimulus, and ineffective for achieving overall and consistent well-being. There are times when this dysregulation seems to really benefit the individual, for example if one becomes aggressive then their irritant will likely resolve, but these inappropriate and intense emotions and responses distinguish dysregulation as problematic to overall health. Anxiety, depression, and even aggressive disorders or #PTSD can result.


Once you learn to recognize when you're in the grip of stress, or distress, you can respond quickly with a relaxation response practice rather than react with a prolonged stress response. This also helps you avoid reacting to these uncomfortable sensations emanating from the body through dissociation. These maladaptive emotional responses can also present as suicide behaviors, depression and anger management disorder.


Our culture is intent on demanding more and more of us, but if we truly want to heal, then we must recognize where we are being exploited. Our cultural norm just doesn't lean into over-working, over-spending, and indulging in every way, it is exceedingly toxic in most every way. We've lost our center, our grounding.


The feelings and thoughts associated with being stressed out are your inner guide, telling you that you're overwhelmed. Learning to get aligned with your inner guide is going to get your hormones back on track. At a deeper level, emotional regulation involves a coherent relationship with the self, specifically effective communication between body, thoughts, and feelings so that reactions can be tempered. There is a sweet spot though in regulating oneself. You want to buffer your stress so to not be overwhelmed, but still engaged with the environment.


Let Me Introduce Interoception


Interoceptive awareness facilitates regulation and an integrated sense of self, and thus contributes to health and well-being (Price & Hooven, 2018). The interesting thing though, is that there is compelling evidence that those who have poor or disrupted awareness of sensory information also have difficulty with emotional regulation. Make sense then why those with autism, ADHD, or those with personality disorders especially struggle with emotional dysregulation? However, when we are maxed out with stress, our sensory perception declines. We are overloaded and our senses are underwater, our emotions then become a bit outside our control, even beyond our awareness.


When we have endured high levels of stress for quite some time, but are successful maybe in our professional roles, it may be that we become a bit too intellectual. We get stuck in our heads and almost incapable of dropping in and checking ourselves. We need to get out of our head and check in with our body, our physical selves and sensations. Pause, take note, get deliberately quiet, and notice how you feel. What are the sensations going on in your body right now? Are you breathing deeply? Clenching your jaw? Your pelvic muscles? Is your posture upright? Are you scrunching your brow?


To truly know our own body, we have to pay attention - which means turning off a lot of the distractions of life seems filled with these days, Tick Tock, Netflix, our Amazon chart, even our "to do" list. Reducing stress hormones and inflammation and working to finally allow the body to heal means looking within, going into the quiet and stillness which ultimately is the only way you can really get control of your stress.


One can mature their emotional intelligence. We can develop our distinct interoceptive awareness. There are in fact, several approaches here, one including the mind-body therapeutic approach. This particular modality improves sensory awareness, reduces distress, and improves regulation.


References

Price, J. P. & Hooven, C. (2018). Interoceptive awareness skills for emotion regulation: Theory and approach of mindful awareness in body-oriented therapy (MABT). Front Psychol, 9(798). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5985305/

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