A client working on substance abuse issues once explained to me how it felt to know that his father was dying. He described a nauseous feeling in his stomach using his hands to mimic the roiling sensation inside of him. I wanted him to describe the phenomenon so that he could begin to understand the intimate and inextricable connection between his emotional and physical experiences. To practice coping strategies, after all, it is critical to know when to implement them. We have smart bodies that alert us to our feelings, but we too often unfortunately forget how to read physical symptoms as manifestations of emotional stress.

Tori Rodriquez’s recent article in Psychology Today (March/April 2015), “Inward Bound: The Mysterious Connection Between Emotion and Physical Sensation is Coming Into Ever-Sharper Focus,” briefly explores recent research on interoception, a “form of sensory perception…that involves the feelings that originate within the body.” Rodriquez posits that “if people can alter their sense of their body’s physiological condition…it can potentially shift their emotional state.” For my client, simply naming his physiological response to a stressor was a big first step. There was no need to alter his response. It was enough to just pay attention to it. With this intervention the client gained access to a practical tool for identifying potential use triggers.

If clients with substance abuse histories can quickly and consistently identify triggers to their use they are more able to utilize adaptive coping strategies rather than returning to their substance of choice to manage their feelings. Awareness of early physiological signs of stress is not just “nice to know.” The ability to name and thereby control negative emotions, by listening to our bodies, could be life-altering for most and lifesaving for many.

As infants, we lack the ability to verbalize our distress. We let the world know how we feel by crying, fidgeting, smiling, and cooing. We are not bashful. We let the world know that we need attention. As we develop verbal acuity, however, a strange thing happens; we separate the world, including ourselves, into discrete categories and become dependent on our ability to verbalize our thoughts. We relegate our emotions to a mysterious sometimes incomprehensible realm. The most common quick and dirty categorization system is the head and the heart. There is power in the head/heart metaphor – why else would so many people rely on it? – but what about the rest of our bodies? Could not our bellies, our backs, our knees also be barometers of change?

Returning to my client, that sickening agitation he described in the pit of his belly was not solely a byproduct of his grief. It was a signifier of his need: pay attention to me! In our session, he was able to articulate a desire to use, yes, but the first experience he described was his nausea, not the obsession to use. His body was the first alert. His nausea was the canary in the coalmine.  

Physical sensation itself could be the first indication that we need help and support in managing stress. By practicing and bettering our ability to “read” our body’s messages, like this client hopefully learned to do, many of us could improve our overall health. We are not just a collection of disparate parts connected by happenstance, but a finely tuned ecosystem. If we pay attention to our present embodied being, we might realize that we are built to feel. We have developed a cornucopia of maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., drugs, sex, food, media, etc.), I think, partly because we have forgotten that our bodies are not just vehicles for a disembodied spirit. Without our bodies, we do not exist. Without our bodies, we do not feel. Without our bodies, we are not human.

Perhaps it is time to pay closer attention to what our bodies are telling us.