08/29/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

Sensitivity Training

When I worked in the corporate world, we would from time to time have division-wide "sensitivity trainings."  These could be related to sexuality, race, culture and religion, and other such topics.

The goal was essentially to make us all more aware of another's experience of circumstances that might be vastly different than our own.  And with that awareness, we then had the opportunity to change behaviors that might be increasing the other's stress and discomfort.
For all of us living in our shared cultural world -- and especially if you have an office job -- a similar training may very well be the key to more peace and happiness.  Only in this case the "other" is our own body!

Let's be honest.  Real life in the 21st century comes connected to many demands, the juggling of responsibilities, and the need to do a lot of things to get through the day.  And in all of that doing we tend to forget our body as we force it.  Sometimes we are forcing it to be active, to carry three bags of groceries, or a child on our hip, or to run through the airport hauling our carry-on bags, zigging and zagging;  at other times, we are forcing the body to be still, but in an incredibly awkward posture, such as arms in front of us with fingers on a keyboard, or torso slumped over a desk as we read through files, or maybe our neck cranked to an odd angle to hold a phone to our ear while we also are using our hands to hold or move other objects.

We think we know what we are doing, but usually our mental attention is engaged in some project and we have little to no sensitivity left for what the body is experiencing.  In effect, we energetically become lost in thought, while the body stumbles or holds itself together in some painful fashion.  And many times those thoughts we are lost in actually increase the stress within our body as it tightens itself up against the threats and challenges we face in our mind.

We can develop some interesting but maladaptive behaviors to this nagging sense of internal stress, such as overeating, becoming a workaholic, or otherwise distracting and numbing ourselves from the sensitivities of the body.  That way we can deny what sometimes is obvious to everyone but ourselves.  "What?  Me tense?  No I'm not, dammit!"

Our body is constantly interacting with its environment, sensing and experiencing all sorts of energies, whether we are aware of it or not.  And often what it experiences is pain or discomfort, or even fear over being insensitively pushed too far.  When our awareness is disconnected from the body, it isn't able to fully process its actual life experience moment to moment.  But those energies that don't register on our mental radar haven't disappeared, they have just been driven deeper into the body.

It may be out of (inner) sight/out of mind, but unfortunately it is never then out of body too.
In fact, after long, continuous periods of this insensitivity, the body will at some point scream "Hey, what about me!!"  The form this takes might be some disease.  When living with chronic, unrelieved stress in the body we develop "hyperarousal syndrome," where the body in continually "fight or flight" mode has a buildup of imbalanced hormones coursing through it, combined with unremitting muscular tension and elevated heart rates and blood pressure.[1] The energy required for this continually firing of the sympathetic nervous system is routed from our sleep, digestion, elimination, and immune systems.

So maybe you get sick, really sick.  Or you develop chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, or you simply can't sleep at night.  Or, perhaps some mechanical part of your body just "gives out" or "seizes up."  Which of course simply adds to your stress because now you have so much to do but are capable physically of only being able to do so much less.

The antidote to this snowball to hell is to consciously go through some sensitivity training of your own body and its actual, felt experience.  Increasing your awareness of your physical state is the positive adaptation to living with chronic stress.  Sometimes we literally have to lose our minds so we can come to our senses!

As Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD., writes:

We know where the flight or fight reaction will lead if it is left to play itself out unconsciously ... The challenge is now for us to realize that at any moment we are in a position to actually decide to do things differently ... This doesn't mean that you will never feel threatened or fearful or angry,or that you will never do anything silly or self-destructive.  But in general, awareness either reduces arousal at the time or it helps you to recover from it more quickly afterward.

So try this: Set your phone alarm to go off every hour.  Use it as a reminder to reconnect your body and your mind.  Notice how your shoulders feel, your jaw, your hips, your spine.  Adjust position or move if you need to.  And tune into your breath, and how the belly rises and falls with the breath.

Grounding yourself in body sensitivity serves as a circuit breaker to take you out of your chronic "fight or flight" state.  Practice becoming aware of another's experience, especially when that other is your own body.  Set your whole self up for the possibility of "tending and mending."



[1] Kabot-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Bantam Dell, 1990.

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