I know what I have to do to feel better but I just can’t do it.
This is one of the statements I hear most often from my clients, my friends, and even my own self.
How often do you rationally know what is good for you but have a hard time following through, especially when you most need to?
Speaking for myself, I can say more times than I’d like to admit.
There’s a scientific explanation for the lack of follow through.
When you’re in a state of overwhelm or distress, your human rational brain goes offline. This means your reactive emotional brain (which you share with all mammals) takes over.
You lose access to your self-awareness and your ability to act on what is deemed “rational” by your human brain.
So you might send that drunk text, hurl that hurtful comment at the person you love, skip that workout, and generally replace basic self-care practices that you know can soothe your frazzled nerves with addictive self-avoiding, self-distracting, and even self-destructive strategies.
You may ask, "Why do I do this to myself?"
Your emotional brain has a built-in “smoke detector,” also known as the amygdala. The smoke detector’s job is to keep you alive by staying alert to all potential threats and preparing you to (re)act on impulse.
You literally “take leave of your senses” because your smoke detector says, “In the time it takes you to be aware, you could DIE. Act first and think later.” It doesn’t discriminate between a life-endangering threat or a looming, stress-inducing deadline.
It’s the part of you that doesn’t do what you know will make you feel better. In other words, it’s the part of you that will have the extra cocktail(s) or skip the gym to binge watch Netflix.
And that’s only one side of the story.
What about the part of you that knows what you need to do to feel better?
You can thank your human rational brain for that. It has a built-in “watchtower,” specifically the medial prefrontal cortex (which sits right above your eyes).
Your watchtower’s job is to take on a calm, objective stance toward your own thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It uses your judgment to decide how appropriate the smoke detector’s hardwired automatic reactions are for a given situation. The watchtower is brain-home of your Core Self.
It says, “There is a potential risk here. Assess the facts and take the time to reflect on their meaning BEFORE you act.”
In other words, it’s the part you that will take a break to “clear your mind,” go for a run, or connect with a friend or mentor to ask for guidance and feedback.
In a resting homeostatic state, these two parts of your brain and mind are partners who generally work together and sometimes bicker over who should take the lead.
However, when you’re in a prolonged state of overwhelm, distress, and trauma, you lose connection to your moment-to-moment self-awareness and find it harder and harder to reconnect with your watchtower.
Not all self-awareness is created equal.
We need a specific type of self-awareness to change our emotional brain.
The type of awareness I’m referring to does not ask what is your experience and what you “should” do to feel better (although there is a time and place for this). After all, most of us (most of the time) already know with our rational brains what makes us feel better.
I’m speaking about practicing a deep knowing of how your experience registers within you.
It is about accessing, tolerating, and befriending physical sensations.
The key is to implement an emotional fitness routine that trains your mind, brain, and body.
Here’s a beginner-friendly exercise you can use on a daily basis to practice the type of self-awareness that can make a difference when it comes to your emotional brain.
With regular practice, it will give your emotional brain a break and empower your human brain to take the lead.
It will get you back into your watchtower, your Core Self.
Find comfort. Find a comfortable seated position in a chair. Take your time to really move around until your body feels settled in
Feel into points of support. Now that you’re in a comfortable position, notice the points of contact between your feet and the ground, your legs and the chair, your buttocks and the chair, your back and the chair. What does it feel like to have your body supported by the ground and this chair?
Tune into your skin's surface. Next, observe what it feels like on the surface of your skin. Do you notice any air current or breeze? How do your clothes or shoes feel on your skin? Maybe there are points of constriction or looseness, dampness or sweat.
Sense what's underneath your skin. Notice any sensations beneath your skin. Maybe you notice your heart beating or maybe you feel the rising and falling of your belly and chest as you breathe? Perhaps you feel more warm or cool in some areas. Maybe there's some tingling or itchiness?
How do you know that you feel comfortable? What feedback from your body in the form of physical sensations did you receive that made you feel comfortable? Based on what physical sensations did you come to the conclusion that this was a comfortable position?
How does becoming aware of your physical sensations make you feel? Does this awareness change your experience of comfort? Does it make you feel more or less comfortable? How might this change over time?
If you’d like to deepen your emotional fitness and practice empowering your rational brain, make sure you don’t miss out on my free audio training/meditation “How to Let Go of Stress and Lean Into Your Self.”
You'll not only learn the core issue that is at the root of so much debilitating stress and other life-restricting mental health struggles but also practice one key strategy to deepen your clarity, vitality, and self-compassion.
Comment below! I would love to hear about times when you knew what to do to feel better but for some reason could not follow through. What got in the way of your follow through and how did you overcome your obstacles? And if you do try this exercise, let me know what it's like for you.
Thank you, as always, for being here and sharing your voice, thoughts, questions and support.
If anyone you know — family, friends, students, daughters, sons or anyone else struggles with acting on knowing what makes them feel good and following through with self-care, please share this blog post. It could be a game-changer for both their physical and mental health.