Identifying And Working With Physical Manifestations Of Stress

How do you experience stress and worry? For many people, the experience of stress is stressful in itself – the mind races as it jumps from item to item, thinking of all that needs to get done, or of worst case scenarios. This often occurs in the middle of the night, interrupting sleep and only compounding the effects. Stress and worry can also manifest in more direct physical forms. When I am stressed or worried, I am often able to compartmentalize and push it out of my mind, but I carry around gut pain, discomfort in my stomach, and shallow breathing – sometimes for days at a time. Usually, once I address the issues that I’d pushed out of my conscious mind, these physical sensations go away.

Somatics is the study of how thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are all interconnected and influence each other. This counteracts the modern way of thinking that a physical sensation in our body requires a physical solution. Somatic theory also suggests that our physical sensations and our physical experience of life are impacted by our interactions with the culture around us. A person that has experienced daily racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia or any other marginalization may carry around deep and potentially chronic physical discomfort as a result. (There are lengthy studies and analyses of somatics and societal trauma that I won’t get into here.)* 

Your experiences may be very different from those of your team members, your colleagues, your manager… even from many of your friends and family! And each person’s experiences of those experiences may be very different. So how do you recognize and honor your own somatic experiences, and honor those of others you interact with?

This Week’s Tip:

Start with yourself:

  1. Notice ongoing physical sensations. What are the sensations that you have not been able to solve through physical treatment? Please note that for many physical sensations, you should seek treatment – here we are talking about the persistent bothersome issues rather than major health issues.
  2. Write down the things you are avoiding thinking about or addressing. Writing them down rather than just reflecting on them is helpful, so you can see them in front of you and refer back to it.
  3. Share with someone you trust. Ask them to be a devoted listener and to reflect back what they heard, as well as any reflections/thoughts they have on what you shared. Notice how that experience feels for you.
  4. Try out a somatic practice. This may be as simple as going for a daily walk or run, practicing yoga, or anything else that engages your body to relax your mind and release tension.

In doing these, you may find insights or reflections that are helpful in your leadership of others, and in particular with colleagues you interact with on a daily basis. If you structure team meetings, you might want to build in a regular activity that engages team members in new ways through some kind of movement or other state changes. Building Bridges Leadership has a wealth of experience in making meetings engaging and authentic spaces; feel free to contact us for support!

If you try this week’s tip, let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear your experiences.

*Note: This isn’t to suggest that all physical sensations come from emotional or traumatic experiences; please listen to the advice of others and do not discount advice from medical professionals when you receive it.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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