We know that worldwide, our mental health – especially in the Covid era – is in terrible shape for young and old alike. Anxiety and conflict arise if we haven’t got a clear compass; if our mind is at odds with itself.
After 40 years working with people in pain, I have arrived at a remarkable conclusion: that by listening to our own insides, to the actual sensations in our body, we can know what is right for us, and also we can heal from past trauma in small, safe steps. As I argue in my new book, Fully Human, we have a "supersense" inside us that is the very foundation of our humanity, and it can help us become lined up in our thoughts, feelings and actions.
When the mind speaks...
Neuroscience is making it very clear that our bodies are part of our minds, and that they speak to us. Sometimes dramatically so. A patient of mine, a young woman doctor, was in a car park in the middle of the day when a clean-cut, suit-wearing man hailed her from about 30 metres away. All her conditioning told her to be polite and ask what he wanted, but something deep in her belly said "not safe". She jumped in her car and skidded away, deeply rattled for no reason she could explain.
That night on the evening news, she was shocked by the headline item: a woman had been assaulted at knife point in that same car park. Luckily, two women had driven in and scared off the attacker. My patient called the police, shaking and in tears, and they came to her house that night. And yes, it was the same man.
We’ve always had names for this, like intuition, or sixth sense, but it’s much more than that. Gut feelings are real, and neuroscientists and therapists are using them more and more to help people have better mental health. They are not just for emergencies, they are there all the time. As you are reading this, if you go down into the middle of your body, around your heart and stomach and "guts", you will notice sensations happening right now. They are telling you your response to my words here: if you feel them to be true, or rubbish, exciting or dull. I call this process supersense to emphasise its incredible speed, perceptiveness, and the way it takes a complex situation and sums it up moment by moment. It’s like a wild creature down inside us that is super alert and sensitive, and is absolutely on our side.
The science behind it
The science behind this has recently become much clearer. Most of what our senses take in is out of our awareness. But deep in our brain our hippocampus checks every sensory input against our memories and experiences. If something isn’t right, it signals the amygdala, which is our alert system, right next door. The amygdala has no words, it talks to us through our body. The vagus nerve that runs right down into our organs gives us sensations that are unmistakable. It clenches, or it churns, or it lightens and opens up. It softens and warms or feels aching and empty.
You can use this in real time as you face life’s challenges. While talking to your partner or children, stay aware of your gut, and you will feel more present and attuned to them. You will know when you are headed in a good direction, or it’s not going to work. You can teach your children from as young as four or five to tune into their own gut feelings, and tell you what is going on. They in turn can use them to know when they are safe or not. How many parents have had a child get a stomach ache from some anxiety at school?
A Fully Human by Steve Biddulph is available on amazon.com.