Somatic Avoidance

Last week in Community time, we focused on noticing, labeling, and staying with the emotions in your body rather than shooting up into your head and engaging in cognitive avoidance. When you shoot up into your head to figure something out or you distract or numb yourself out from what is happening in your body, you are engaging in somatic avoidance. (The  word somatic means relating to the body, especially as distinct from the mind.)

You may have noticed that even if you identify as a person who is sensitive to emotions or someone who has been in psychotherapy for a long time, you still have trouble identifying and staying with your emotions. You might still be distant from your moment-by-moment bodily experience, your somatic experience. Two patterns are common here:

1) Individuals who are sensitive to emotions often learn and then reinforce behavioral patterns that make them experience their emotions more intensely.

Sensitive individuals are often less able to identify and allow their emotions because of the intensity of their emotions and because of the way other people respond to them. We will discuss this theme in greater depth next week when we discuss emotion-driven behaviors.

2) Typical psychotherapy practices are very focused on the content of your thoughts.

Some older theories of psychology focused on gaining insight into your narrative until you were able to come up with a different narrative that caused you less distress. Sometimes exploring how you came to understand who you are and how to respond to life in light of that narrative is helpful. But, sometimes, the more you talk in psychotherapy, the more you feel like you need to talk to feel better. It’s as if if you just got the narrative right and if this magical therapist perfectly understood you, then you wouldn’t feel distressed anymore.

It isn’t true. We all have a variety of narratives within us from a variety of sources. Our brains take in information from the environment, our minds turn that information into a narrative. Narratives are super helpful for collaboration and problem-solving. Humans took over the planet due to our ability to generate and spread narratives. In your personal relationship with yourself, however, modern psychological theory suggests that we should never take our narratives too seriously.

Rather than getting involved with and “figuring out” exactly why we’re thinking or feeling whatever we’re thinking and feeling (that is, adding narrative), instead we can come back into our direct reality.

Let me tell you more about accessing direct reality… 

There are all kinds of studies describing the numerous benefits of mindfulness meditation practices. Sitting quietly, observing your breath, noticing the sensations in your body, and watching your thoughts pass by for some amount of time each day is undoubtedly beneficial for your mind and body.

It’s challenging for me to capture the spirit of my recommendation here though because mindfulness is a really challenging exposure for a person with a fear of their mind and body. So, on the one hand, if somatic avoidance is one mechanism that maintains your anxiety or OCD, it will be very helpful to you to do the opposite. On the other hand, mindfulness as an exposure is so challenging that you are really prone to feeling self-critical and demoralized.

Let’s try to set up your attitude so that mindfulness isn’t torturing for you. 

#1 – Expect this to be challenging. You might have the feeling of boredom at some point, but noticing and allowing boredom is not a boring task. It’s a very challenging task.

If you are constantly trying to control what your mind does and how your body feels, sitting quietly with yourself and just noticing what’s happening will, in fact, be really anxiety-provoking. You might feel afraid of what you notice. You might feel helpless about not changing what’s occurring. The process itself might trigger the feeling of worthlessness. Be ready for it. This is your work. If any of that shows up for you, know that you are doing your exposure correctly rather than incorrectly. Remember that you aren’t trying to fix anything. You are trying to stay present and observe on purpose, without changing anything.

Notice that you will have the urge to judge what you are experiencing:

  • “Am I doing this right?”
  • “Is this enough time?”
  • “How do I know if this will work for me?”
  • “If it’s working, how do I know that it’s working?”
  • “Is this a good use of my time?”
  • “Why is my mind racing?”
  • “Why am I so distracted?”
  • “Why do I think these things?”
  • “What if I can’t stop worrying?”
  • “What if I have my intrusions and I get anxious?”
  • “If I get anxious while I’m doing this does that mean that I am hurting myself or making things worse for myself?”
  • “Maybe this isn’t for me. I’ll do this when I’m better.”

#2 – Expect this to be challenging. It will trigger perfectionism.

Exercise of any kind is definitely better for your mind and body than no exercise at all. That said, if perfectionism is a mechanism that maintains your anxiety, OCD, or depression, then you are very prone to your perfectionism stealing your exercise and using it to reinforce your distress. (“I must exercise this way or no exercise at all!”) Then again, perfectionism can steal anything — be it your clothing choice, your work, your friendships, your dating life — and you can’t stop putting clothing on or doing any of those other things.

My point here is that mindfulness of any kind can be a tool that helps you refrain from somatic avoidance and brings you back into the present moment awareness of your body. When you start practicing, notice the urge to test your progress based on how your mindfulness is going. Allow that thought to pass and refrain from any behaviors that your mind tells you that you must do.

#3 – Expect this to be challenging. It’s really hard to start a new habit.

There is a balance between starting a habit and doing something compulsively to alleviate anxiety. Only you know what is happening for yourself. Refrain from self-criticism and get curious about what your mind does as you start this. If you’re trying to start a mindfulness practice, choosing the same time each day and using a cue that is already habitual (for instance, after I brush my teeth, I practice mindfulness for 5 minutes) is a really good idea. It’s also a good idea to commit to this habit (or something like it) for at least 2 weeks.

Start as small as possible to get momentum going. Notice what your mind does with trying to create the new habit. Does it minimize the task and lead you to avoid? Does it become obsessed with the task and lead you to get compulsive about it? Just watch this and add it to your self-awareness. We’re not going for the perfect habits. We’re just trying to give you some experiences of your direct reality so that you feel less afraid.

Also, you can access greater bodily awareness through more than just mindfulness. Try using all 5 of your senses. Here is a list of other ways that you can bring more attention to your present moment bodily awareness. Try to think up some other ideas that are relevant to your everyday life.

  • Listen to music you like and bring your attention to what you hear.
  • Notice the smell of scented candles, incest, or the soap you use when you shower or wash your hands.
  • Ask a loved one for a massage, get a professional massage, or massage your own arms, legs, feet, hands, and shoulders.
  • Do a body scan meditation.
  • Engage in exercise of any kind and bring attention to your breathing and your muscles on purpose.
  • Practice dance, yoga, or stretching and bring your attention to your body and your muscles.

In Community time this week, be ready to discuss:

  • Is somatic avoidance a mechanism that maintains your anxiety? What maintains it?
  • Have you tried mindfulness? Do either of my three points about what makes it challenging resonate with you?
  • What are some other things you do or would like to do to bring attention to your bodily experience?