Some people who come to see a therapist are carrying a lot of stress that they’re not aware of. They have no idea that their shoulders are tense or that their jaws are clenched.
Our body can tell us about the aspects of our health that need to be attended to. We know that a growling stomach means hunger, or a yawn can mean exhaustion. If we ignore these warning signs, then the body takes over. We collapse from hunger or fatigue.
The body is the voice of emotions, eloquently communicating critical information about our current emotional state. Tightened muscles and a sick sensation in the gut, for example, typically accompany fear, while rage is characterized by an increased heartbeat and body temperature.
For example, if a pit bull came after us, our body would need to do certain things for us to survive. People’s hands get cold because the blood leaves the extremities, in case a dog might bite them off. This basically protects the body’s blood supply and allows the blood to go to specific places to protect itself. The rapid heartbeat, upset stomach, headaches, muscle tension, shortness of breath, flushed face, sweaty forehead, fidgety legs that occur when emotional, is how our body lets us know it’s time to make a choice for urgent action.
The term “flooding” describes the release of hormones that “flood” or prepare our body for action. These chemicals must pass through our body, be absorbed into the tissues and released into the urine before our body returns to normal.
The fight or flight process takes 20 minutes. We will need a 20 minute respite to completely calm down physiologically. If the stressful situation remains, our heart rate will remain elevated, our body will pump out adrenaline and our thinking will be clouded. We will be physiologically reactive even if we “know” a different response is called for. Most people think they are calm, long before they actually are physiologically calm.
This cranial takeover occurs because our logical prefrontal cortex is simply out-matched by the competition from our emotional amygdala. This race is not even close because emotion-laden pathways in the brain are faster the logical signals.
Our amygdala’s emotional impulses zoom down our neurological express routes. However, the same information is also being processed logically, but our rational thoughts are transported via the local roads, stopping at other regions of our brain along the way. But because the emotional pathway in our brain transmits signals twice as fast as the more roundabout route involving our logic, our judgment simply can’t intervene in time. It takes time to think, plan, analyze, and act.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the luxury of time. If they were confronted with a threat, they had to act immediately or they would die. They could not take a moment to weigh the pros and cons, analyze and act, “Well there is a bear in front of me. Do I look for honey? Shall I catch a salmon? Shape some wood into a spear? Grab a rock? Run away?” No, it was fight (attack) or flight (run away), It was not logical problem solving that helped them in that moment. It was their emotional reactions, which allowed them to survive.
Emotions are part of our physiology and influence our health and well-being. If we find it difficult to name what we or others are feeling, it may help to pay attention to the body. The whole reasons emotions evolved is to enable humans to survive.