How I reconnect with my body: tips and techniques

In my previous blog post, I talked about how a childhood trauma had caused a severe disconnection between my mind and body, and why I decided to work on reconnecting the two. In this post, I’ll talk about the techniques I’ve used (and still do) to rebuild and maintain my body connection. Because rebuilding the connection is an ongoing practice.

Just last week, I had a migraine attack which I had not seen coming at all. I thought I was doing fine. But in retrospect there were plenty of small telltale signs that proved I’d been stepping over my boundaries of stress and fatigue.

Rebuilding the body connection is about learning to listen

The disconnection of our body can happen because of several causes. In my case, it was an involuntary survival mechanism after a traumatic experience. My subconscious mind had closed off my conscious experience to the pain, in order to prevent a total meltdown. But it could just as easily happen because it’s what you learned as a child. To pay less and less attention to your physical sensations, and instead act from an exclusive mental perspective.

No matter the cause, the result is the same. The disconnection causes us to forget about our body as an integral part of our being, and its signals are being filtered out as ‘negligible’ by our subconscious mind. If we want to reconnect with our body, we need to teach our subconscious to adjust its filtering, so that we can open up again to our body’s signals. We can do that through deliberate practice.

Practice through awareness, choice and habit

Practice comes down to three foundational pillars: awareness, deliberate choice and habit.

Awareness

First we need to become aware of our desire to reconnect with our body. Without the conscious realization of this desire, there’s no beginning. But once we do know, we can move to the next step: choice.

Choice

Whether we act on our desire to reconnect with our body, and how we do it, is our own choice. No one can make the choice for us. We can get help from third parties (like a therapist, coach, nutritionist…) in the execution. But ultimately we’ll have to do the effort ourselves. Initially, it’ll require focus and will power, which feels tiring, but luckily, there’s help from our subconscious auto pilot: habit.

Habit

If we act consistently in a certain way for long enough, we program ourselves subconsciously to continue the execution of that act, which we call a habit. On average it takes 21 to 30 days to establish a new habit, which means the longer you do something, the easier it becomes mentally. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’re not even thinking about the act anymore, but just doing it.

Practice

Let’s take a closer look at how the chain awareness, choice and habit worked in my past. After I encountered my back injury, my coach gave me recovery exercises. While doing these, I had to consciously focus my mind on the feeling physical sensation in my back, which took considerable effort (and if I didn’t I’d be reminded by a sharp stab of pain). But after about a month, I noticed that gradually it took me less and less mental effort to remind myself of having to focus on the physical sensations. Instead, it became an always-on mode.

The language of our body: physical sensations

Variety of sensations

When establishing a habit of connecting with our body, we of course need to know what to focus on. Our bodies have a wide variety of sensations: comfort, discomfort, pain, hunger, thirst, tension, relaxation, fatigue, …

Because there are so many, start simple: pick one sensation that appeals to you, and stick with it until you can sense it with ease. If you don’t know where to start, go with what seems most logical. For instance, if you’re recovering from an injury, go with discomfort and pain. If you’re struggling with eating, you could choose hunger.

Physical vs. mental hunger

For me, feeling physical hunger was a big challenge. For the longest time, I’d felt entirely unaware of the sensation. When I was bullied, I gained a lot of body weight. In my teen years it made me feel fat and unattractive and I reacted by starving my body (and compensating with bouts of overindulgence). Initially I thought that’s how I could lose weight, but subconsciously it gave me a sense of power over my out-of-control body. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried the excess weight wouldn’t budge.

What I couldn’t see was how my behavior actually sustained the issue. I’d become completely detached from feeling physical hunger, and compensated with eating junk foods whenever I felt anxious, sad, or stressed.

In the last few years, a therapist has helped me break the cycle. I had to learn to feel physical hunger again by checking into my body whenever I felt a mental urge to eat. I also try to sense what kind of food my body longs for. Not surprisingly, when it’s my body talking, I want wholesome, satiating foods, as opposed to the junk foods that my anxious mind craves. It’s an ongoing exercise, but not only do I feel a lot better, my body continues to transform into a healthier, and more balanced, composition.

Non-judgmental attitude

The first step in building a connection with our body, is setting the mental baseline. Essentially, we must create a baseline of non-judgment, curiosity and welcoming towards the signals of our body. Depending on the cause of our disconnection, there’s a good chance that the reengagement with our body, will dislodge unpleasant mental and emotional experiences from our past. By using our non-judgmental baseline, we’ll be able to allow these sensations to exist, without creating new meta-emotions (for instance feeling angry, because you feel angry).

For instance, when I initiated my body reconnection exercises, soon enough vivid images of the horrible bullying in my youth came back, that had previously been locked away in my subconscious. But by sticking to a welcoming and non-judgmental attitude, I could keep these sensations in my conscious mind, and process them.

Another situation could be that, our body responds with a sudden bout of primal reflexes: fight, flight or freeze. Once again, our non-judgmental baseline can save us from the overwhelming urge these reflexes bring along.

Whatever your experience is, remind yourself that you’re in a safe environment, and that you can handle any sensation that comes your way. If needed, seek professional help so that you can learn to cope with the root cause of your body disconnection. Especially in a context of past trauma, I’d consider working with a therapist. I myself started therapy a few years ago, and could never have come to the point where I am today without it.

Body connection techniques

Active check-in

For me, the active check-in has been both the simplest and the hardest technique. For the longest time, I felt unable to to complete this exercise successfully. No matter how much I tried, I simply felt unable to feel a certain body part (which shows how disconnected I was from my body). Today, I can do it effortlessly (it’s my favorite one). It’s hard to believe how hard this exercise once was for me.

The active check-in is a simplified version of the mindfulness exercise of body scan. It goes like this:

  • with the conscious mind, focus on a part of your body (hands, arms, legs, feet, back, belly, …) or on a physical need (hunger, thirst, tired)
  • describe to yourself the sensation you experience
  • describe the intensity of the sensation. Use a numerical scale (0 through 5, whereby 0 is not at all and 5 is needle in the red) to objectify. This makes gauging the next step easier
  • describe what feels like an appropriate response to the sensation: tense needs relaxation, pain needs soothing, hunger needs eating
  • thank your body for telling you, and yourself for taking the time to check in

Practice this exercise several times a day. You can focus on one body part, or go through a sequence of several.

Square breathing

Square (or box) breathing is an outstanding tool for stressful situations. It offers an instant sense of anchoring in our body and brings our mind back to the present.

In regular circumstances I breathe in and out through either nose or mouth. In a stressful situation, I specifically breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows for faster recovery and relaxation. I also like to follow it with an active check-in.

Square breathing:

  • visualize a square (or box), and start at one corner
  • breathe in, while mentally following the circumference of the square and counting 2, 3, 4 on each of the corners.
  • hold the breath for four counts, again following the outline of the box.
  • breathe out for four counts, following the edges of the square.
  • hold for four counts.
  • breathe in for four counts.
  • repeat for at least 5 to 10 sequences.
  • optionally, you can finish off with an active check-in, for instance experience how the tension in your shoulders feels.
  • thank your body for sending you its signals, and yourself for taking the time to do the exercise.

Active physical engagement

Once we’ve become comfortable with sensing our body in a relaxed environment, we can continue in a situation of physical engagement like sports. Although any kind of sport is a great opportunity for this technique, I prefer the ones that allow enough mental space and opportunity for active check-ins. Especially in an early phase, I’d stick to yoga, hiking and meditative movements. It’s also important to allow your body to teach you, instead of relying on non-customized training programs. No one can tell you how something feels for you, except you yourself.

While exercising:

  • check in with your body through an active check-in. Take note of both pleasurable and uncomfortable sensations. Be mindful of the difference between discomfort and pain. Make use of the numerical scale to aid you in assessing.
  • only if your body feels that it can handle more, are you allowed to intensify the physical exertion.
  • continue checking in, and notice when discomfort becomes pain. As soon as that happens, reduce the amount of exertion. My benchmark is a 3/5 on discomfort. A 2/5 is ok, but once I hit that 3, it’s time to plateau.
  • if at any point you feel a sharp or sudden pain, back off immediately.

The ultimate goal of active physical engagement, is to learn to exercise sports without running into pain or pushing ourselves too far. I myself used to hate sports for the longest time because of this. Physical movement had become synonymous with pain and frustration. Since I’ve learned this different approach, I thoroughly enjoy how my body feels in a serious workout.

Respond appropriately

The last technique in reconnecting with our body is perhaps the most important one: responding appropriately. The longterm disconnection with our body, has made us forget not just how it feels, but also what the sensation means.

Reflexes

Most physical sensations, come with a biologically ingrained response: reflexes. Pain will cause us to back away of its cause, just like comfort or pleasure will make us lean in. Our physical disconnection may have taught us a skewed response. For instance, for me, pain used to be a source of pride and strength, not something to back away from.

The good news about reflexes is that all we have to do, is listen to them in the same way that we learn to listen to the the preceding physical sensation. Signal and response come hand in hand.

Ambiguous sensations

A different story are physical sensations that have gained an ambiguous or false connotation. Coping mechanisms (for instance eating to soothe mental pain), compensation after disconnection (physical pain as a token of pride) or even environment (eating at dinner time, or out of politeness towards a host) can create conflicting behavior between signal and response.

By anchoring ourselves fully in our sense of body awareness, and staying in that presence, we can learn to let go of the mental connotations. Greater focus may be required, perhaps help from a professional.

For instance, I often practice mobility exercises that feel uncomfortable while doing them, but are beneficial for my body. I could only learn this with the help of my coach, and with careful attention for where the boundary of uncomfortable yet safe was, as opposed to painful.

It also took me a lot of practice to reconnect with my sense of hunger and thirst. In the past, I’d suppress the genuine physical sensations, but would happily indulge in eating when I felt a mental sense of unease, loneliness or anguish. Through active check-ins with my body, have I learned to reestablish a sense when I actually need food or drink (and later on even what kinds).

Trust your body

When we rebuild the connection with our body, we start a long journey which will inevitably be full of challenges, failures and successes. Never forget that we’re reversing an issue that has existed for years, if not decades, which takes time and practice. The goal is not to complete but rather to walk this journey. Celebrate each success, no matter how small, and learn from each failure. And always remember that one step, is all it takes to move forward.

You had a perfect mind-body connection when you came into this world.

But most of all, trust that you can rebuild the connection with your body. You had a perfect mind-body connection when you came into this world. Unfortunate circumstances may have disconnected one from the other, but it’s a matter of practicing a disused skill, not repairing damage. Let your body become your teacher, and your mind its humble student. You’ll be amazed by what you’re capable of.

Jelger

Jelger

Jelger is former lawyer and recovering head person, with a passion for self-improvement, rewilding and discovering all life has to offer. He lives in Vancouver, BC together with his wife Tanja and a bunch of cute, stuffed animals (which he may or may not have named).