Anne Pascale Stein is a German, English and French speaking licensed mental health practitioner in Berlin and online with over a decade of experience in private practice. Her approach combines body-oriented, emotion-focused, and attachment-based methods to help with anxiety, exhaustion, depression, grief and trauma.
Last Updated on January 5, 2024 by It’s Complicated
“The body has its own non-conceptual intelligence, so often overlooked or devalued in the face of conceptual intelligence. The body knows when it is hungry, when it needs to move, what it needs to thrive. It communicates wisdom that comes through feeling and present-moment experience. When we lose the body, we lose connections to truths that a disembodied cognition can’t access alone.”Willa Blith Baker
Understanding and listening to your body is crucial for maintaining a healthy life, one that is present and grounded in your individual experience, your relationships and your existence on this planet. In the midst of everyday stress, challenging situations, life transitions, and moments of crisis, we often feel disconnected from our emotions and become sceptical of physical symptoms. We primarily reside in our minds, attempting to control our lives from there. Listening to our bodies provides a path to (re)connect with and (re)discover our vitality, offering greater stability and joy in life while reducing anxiety, depression, and exhaustion. It allows us to anchor our experiences in physical sensations, strengthening our connection to who we are and creating a safe foundation to rely on during challenging times and situations.
We are body-minds
As human beings, we are body and we are mind. Our culture prioritises mind over body, placing cognition over perception and somatic attention. Yet, it is through sensing our bodies that we come alive and perceive the world around us. Everything we experience unfolds within our bodies. The mental and the physical are always inseparably connected. Emotions, actions, and thoughts are all specific processes that take place in our bodies. Learning to make sense of our physical experience helps us feel at home in our bodies and in our lives.
We’ve all learned not to listen to our bodies. We are used to primarily listening to our thoughts leaving us “up in our heads” and having little sense for what happens below our necks. Our minds often convince us that something else is more important. Or what our body tells us just doesn’t fit our plans. Or we have an idea of what we should be experiencing regardless if it has something to do with what we actually are experiencing. We don’t want to be sick. We delay sleep when tired, ignore thirst, and fail to breathe as much as we need during intense emotions. We push when we actually need a break. We shut down and isolate ourselves when we really would need a conversation with a good friend. It takes some practice to listen properly!
Listening to your body means learning to:
- Become more grounded in the here and now, less likely to lose yourself in the future or remain stuck in the past. Body-based perception, feeling, and thinking enable us to notice what is our truth in a given moment regardless of what our thinking part has to say about it. We cannot think we are grounded, we have to feel it in our body.
- Find words to physically describe your experience and emotions. This practice transforms overwhelming experiences into a somatic process. Instead of feeling lost in an incomprehensible emotional state, you’ll learn to pay attention to sensations like a tense throat, shallow breathing, tight shoulders, and a clenched abdomen. This step alone often reduces the intensity of overwhelming emotions. It also enables you to communicate more precisely about your experience, emotions and needs.
- “Feel” your feelings – to be with and experience their energy and the physical waves they create within your body, without automatically acting on them. We cannot think ourselves through an emotion. This step creates trust as it enables you to hold and accompany yourself in the midst of messy feelings.
- Understand deeper dimensions of your experience. In daily life, we often have access to only certain facets of our emotional world. Through the body, we gain access to more aspects of an experience and a deep sense of our intuition, understanding its effects on our actions and our lives.
- Not be at the mercy of your emotions and experiences. Realising that emotions are a set of physical sensations makes it clear that emotions are involuntary AND that we can influence them. You can contract or open up, hold your breath or continue to breathe, tense or relax your muscles, stay still or move – and change can occur.
How to listen to your body
Listening to your body is often counterintuitive. We usually try to escape uncomfortable sensations or avoid experiences that we dislike. To listen to our bodies means to turn towards those experiences and the physical sensations they provoke, to stay with them, and to become curious.
Listening to your body is not about more yoga or sports, a better diet or a daily walk. It’s not a tool, it’s a principle. It’s a state of being where we get attuned to our sensations and emotions – a state where you let your body teach your mind. It’s an ongoing lifelong practice involved in everything that we are doing. Listening to your body will change and deepen with time, as you change and your life experience deepens.
Listening to your body means to be receptive to its particular language: your sensations. To be able to listen, we need to shut up, to take down the volume of our ongoing stream of thoughts, we need to slow down and pay attention to the experience in and of our bodies, to drop down from our thinking minds into our sensing and feeling bodies. For many, paying attention to their breathing helps connect to their somatic experience. Others require movement or touch to better discern what they are sensing in their bodies.
Some bodies don’t feel safe
When your body keeps the score of traumatic experiences, when you hurt because of loss, in moments of crises, listening to your body can be challenging and actually not feel safe. Body psychotherapy, somatic coaching, trauma-informed bodywork and other embodiment practices can help you reclaim your body, understand its signals and build trust in its sensations and movements that our minds often can’t make sense of. Reach out for help when needed!
When you have a health condition or impairments it might be equally challenging to listen to your body. HERE is a beautiful conversation from the On Being podcast on how to listen to your body when it has been paralysed.
It’s a practice, so let’s do it
While reading this slowly, intentionally pay attention to your body. How are you sitting? Is your back supported? Can you relax your shoulders? Are your feet touching the ground? Don’t necessarily change anything, just notice. Is there space in your belly? Can your pelvis relax? How are you breathing? And what’s happening in your thoughts? Are you noticing defensive thoughts or postures? Thoughts that you can’t let go of, efforts, or tension in your body? Acknowledge these and ask yourself why they are there. Is something challenging for you right now/today?
Set those thoughts aside for now. You can come back to them later. Most probably they will still be there! Now focus your attention on your breathing. Notice the movement of your breath within your body. The expansion as you inhale and take in air, and the letting go and dropping efforts as you exhale and release the air. Take a few deep breaths. Don’t push yourself to breathe deeply. Rather, let your breath simply meet all the sensations you are noticing.
What sensations are you currently aware of? Find words to describe them. It’s okay to keep it simple: warm/cold, contracted/relaxed, hard/soft, wide/tight. Stay with it, breathe, and just notice.
As you breathe in, let your body absorb nourishing energy, and as you breathe out, let the body release extra effort. Get comfortable. One breath at a time. Let the breath bring softness and openness in the tight places. Move if you need to. Slow down.
What are you feeling right now? Find words to describe your emotions. Is there sadness? Anger? Joy? Fear? Stay with the emotions as you are noticing them, acknowledge them, and observe what’s happening. If you notice an impulse to move, follow it. Maybe you need to get bigger, breathe deeper or shake something off?
Let your body follow the energy of the emotion you are experiencing. If you want, you can breathe into the sensations while they unfold in your body. Or you can put a hand on your chest or your belly, or any other place in your body where touch might feel supportive right now.
Then direct your attention to your body as a whole. How are you? What was it like to take a few moments for yourself and turn your attention inwards? Do you need anything specific right now? Is there something you’d like to do?
If you found this interesting and would like to explore further, listen to Anna Krimerman’s training Grounded in who you are. You could also read another short piece of our own on somatic experiencing.
Listening to your body allows for greater flexibility because it expands your range of action in the face of intense experiences. It’s about the possibility of consciously replacing a reaction of contraction with a response of openness. This is not always easy and not always possible. It’s a practice and an art.
Over time constant contraction creates a state of physical weakness and instability. A compressed body narrows our perception and our thinking. Opening towards sensation creates sensitivity, strength, and compassion. A permeable body fosters open perception and creative thinking. From there, we can best decide what our next steps should be.
Sources and resources
Paul Linden, Embodied Peacemaking. Body-Awareness, Self-Regulation and Conflict resolution, 2007
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, It’s Not Always Depression. A New Theory of Listening to Your Body, Discovering Core Emotions and Reconnecting with Your Authentic Self, 2018
Bessel van der Kolk, The body keeps the score. Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, 2014
Steve Haines, Touch is really strange, 2021
Willa Blyth Baker, The Science of Embodiment. Connect to Your Body’s Wisdom, 2023
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