Help Your Body Calm Your Sensitive Mind
If you are a sensitive person, you may already suspect you have more than five senses. .It's true. We actually have sixth, seventh and eighth senses. Proprioception is a sense which allows us to know where our bodies are in space and in relation to other objects. We also have a vestibular sense, that controls our balance and equilibrium. And, introception allows us to feel from within our bodies, and gather important information about some of our body’s vital functions. For example, we have body sensations telling us when we need to use the restroom, when we’re hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, or if our heart is beating more quickly and we need more oxygen.
Receptors within our body help us to regulate digestion, body temperature and heart rate. This is closely tied to our ability to regulate emotions. Our body sensations give us information about safe and dangerous situations, when someone is overstepping our boundaries and when we need to take action. When we are calm, our bodies are in a state of “rest and digest”. We know this because we feel don’t feel tension in our muscles. We can breathe easily, our heart rate is normal and our stomach feels calm, maybe even hungry. To the contrary, when we feel afraid or anxious, our muscles tense, our heart beats faster, our stomach feels upset or nauseated. We may even begin to sweat. When we are overwhelmed, we might even enter into a phase of feeling physically or emotionally immobile or shut down.
If we are able to realize the clues our bodies give us, we are better able to recognize and avoid danger. We are also better able to calm ourselves when our lives aren’t actually being threatened, but our nervous system is on high alert anyway. When we notice pleasant and calm sensations we are more likely to enjoy experiences, expand our emotional capacity and can reduce the effects of stress.
Being able to tap into the language of our bodies, is extremely important for anyone, and can be especially helpful for people who are neurodivergent and have more sensitive brains and nervous systems. Current research suggests gifted brains are indeed more sensitive in a myriad of ways. Dombrowski noticed this when he hypothesized that gifted people likely have what he called overexcitabilities or super sensitivities. Additionally, people who are gifted and have ADHD or Autism, are even more likely to have sensitive brains, nervous systems and bodies, which can mean you feel things more intensely emotionally and physically. This can lead to:
Emotional overwhelm that can take the form of anxiety, outbursts, and shut down.
Can also mean you feel more uncomfortable in your body.
You may have heightened senses and need to block sensory input, or crave sensory input to feel calm and comfortable.
You may need to move your body to regulate your emotions, thoughts and energy.
You may also need to move to think or engage yourself in various activities.
When your body is uncomfortable and your nervous system is activated, you are more likely to have an existential crisis.
Sometimes people are overwhelmed by their internal body sensations, and are not able to interpret what their bodies are trying to tell them, while others have tuned out these signals altogether. For example, research shows the brains of gifted children and teens consume more glucose, especially when they are in use. It is estimated that 6-8% of gifted children and teens have reactive hypoglycemia. Often, they aren’t attuned to their body’s signals telling them when to eat a snack, and continue trying to work or play, as their minds become fuzzy and their emotions shift dramatically throughout the day.
One example I often hear reported by gifted children, teens and adults are about the overwhelming body sensations they experience when they are learning something new, that isn’t one of their strengths, or when they are faced with unnecessary repetition of something they have already learned. The body sensations they describe are a feeling of heaviness throughout the body, fatigue, and sometimes a tightness of breath and nausea. They say it feels overwhelming, uncomfortable and almost like they embodiment of failure, or “dying on the inside”. Many gifted children and teens have told me, it’s these sensations that make them avoid doing “difficult” tasks, but it is too hard for them to describe this experience to adults as they don't have the words, and they fear no one would believe them or care anyway. Adults, share similar stories.
Lastly, people with sensitive brains and nervous systems may feel physically and emotionally overwhelmed by their surroundings. Often parents of gifted children tell me their kids are angry, irritable and anxious when they pick them up from school and may even melt down in the car on the way home. This can be the result of feeling overstimulated by high sensory input, and social interactions all day, leaving them feeling physically and emotionally depleted by the time they leave school.
If you or your child has experienced some form of trauma, your nervous system may be even more reactive or shut down, depending on your history.
Learning how to recognize what your body is trying to tell you, can help you to better regulate your emotions, and heal from past trauma. You can also teach your children important skills which will help them to become better regulated and more resilient.
Here are some ways to start learning how to track your body sensations, begin to better regulate yourself and teach your children how to do the same.
Orient to your surroundings. Let your eyes, ears or fingers wander for at least 30 seconds. Notice what you like and what you’re curious about. Then notice your body. How does it feel when you notice something pleasant? Maybe your muscles are less tense, and you feel a sensation of warmth in your chest. When you are ready, let your senses wander again, only this time notice at least one thing you don’t like. Something mildly unpleasant is best. Now check in with your body, how does that feel? Maybe you feel some tension in your jaw or tightness in your chest. Orient once more, and try to notice what is pleasant and supportive, and check in with your body. You can turn this into a game to play with your children and teens to help them start recognizing simple sensations in their bodies associated with pleasure and disdain. Simple orienting can also be very calming when feeling heightened emotions, increased heart rate and racing thoughts.
Stop and Notice. Notice how your body feels when you are happy, sad, angry, and hungry. Help your children to notice and give them words to describe these sensations. Noticing sensations associated with happiness and comfort help us to gain enjoyment from pleasant experiences and expands our overall emotional capacity. Being able to recognize the early signs of anger, anxiety and hunger can help us to take action before losing control. For example, we can eat a balanced snack before we have low blood sugar. We can take deep breaths with long exhales before becoming overwhelmed with anxiety, or we can go for a walk before losing our temper and saying something hurtful.
Place your hand on your body. Experiment with placing your hand or hands on different parts of your body and noticing any sensations. For example, when feeling tense, many people feel a sensation of relief when they place one hand on their heart and the other on their stomach. Some feel relief when they place a hand at the base of their skull or on their forehead. Try different things and notice what feels comfortable and what doesn’t. If you or your child do not like the touch of others, your own touch may feel different and more comfortable. You can also turn this into a game, and help your child to talk about what they are experiencing. When you discover what is comforting, you will have one more tool to help you and your child to self regulate.
Imagine or visualize you are a tree with roots growing out of your feet, into the ground. Feel your feet on the ground and your body swaying in the wind. Notice how your body feels. Do you feel more present? Less tense? More calm? This is great to do with kids of all ages especially after or during a hard day.
Vooing. If you have butterflies in your stomach, feel nauseated or overwhelmed you can stimulate the portion of your vagus nerve residing in your stomach by “vooing”, which can have a calming effect on your body. Take a deep breath in and make a sound, like a deep voo as you slowly exhale. Repeat once or twice and notice your body sensations.
Move. All kinds of movement helps. If you or your child are feeling overwhelmed or fuzzyheaded, do some gentle stretching and move your joints. Turning in circles or swinging on a swing can help calm anxious bodies at the end of a school day. And going for a walk outside can both be calming and invigorating.
Remember, you aren’t in this alone. Talk to people in your support system or with a trained and experienced professional in your area. Additionally, Trauma Proofing Your Kids by Peter Levine, Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel, and Brain-Body Parenting: How to Stop Managing Behavior and Start Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids are great books to help you in your journey.
About the Author: Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. Christy also assists in the training of other therapists learning a somatic approach to teaching trauma. She has over 13 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have survived past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body. Christy also offers online support to those anywhere in California.