Want to Feel Happier, More Confident, and More Powerful? Here’s How.

Want to Feel Happier, More Confident, More Powerful - Let Your Body Talk

Changing feelings and thoughts can be difficult (oh there’s an understatement for you!) but here’s some exciting news … there’s a back door, and it starts with your physical experience – the way you move, your surroundings, even what you’re wearing just to name a few. The research on this is growing – and the findings are fascinating …

Before it was even a concept, we were talking the talk of embodied cognition, using metaphors of physical experience to explain thoughts, feelings, emotional responses.

We talk about feeling ‘weighed down’ by guilt – connecting a physical heaviness to the emotion of guilt. We ‘warm up’ to people, others ‘leave us cold’, tying physical temperature to our emotional reactions to people. We ‘weigh up’ different options, giving heavier weighting to more important considerations. Similarly, when we talk about difficult concepts ‘going over our heads’, we align the idea of something being physically out of reach, to our understanding of a concept being similarly beyond grasp. .

The idea that our thoughts are initiated by our physical experience has been demonstrated by an impressive body of research.

Embracing the metaphor ‘something smells fishy’ – a metaphorical expression of suspicion – a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored the embodied cognition in fishy smells.

Researchers found that participants who were incidentally exposed to fishy smells showed increased suspicion about the intentions of others. Those participants also showed less co-operation in a task that required them to trust others to share resources or responsibilities.

Furthermore, when researchers induced suspicion in participants, those participants showed a heightened sensitivity to fishy smells, and greater accuracy in labelling fishy smells, but not other smells such as apple fragrance oil, minced onion, caramel, and orange nectar.

Another study demonstrated how the physical experience of weight influenced the perception of importance. Basing their study on the observation that heavy objects require more effort and have greater impact the body than light objects, researchers found that when people held a heavier weight, they perceived issues as more important.

Clearly not everything that is important is physically weighty – but – when we speak about people dealing with important things – addiction, break-ups, job loss, depression, we speak about how they have ‘fallen hard’, are ‘dealing with some heavy stuff’ or we ask the question, ‘how much harder do they need to fall?’.

Other research has found that participants judged a stranger more favourably when they were seated in a softer, more comfortable chair, than when they were seated in a harder chair. (All participants reported the chairs as feeling ‘normal’.)

Our thoughts, feelings, physical experience and behavior are inextricably linked. They influence each other. Change one, and the others will eventually catch up.

Thoughts and feelings are generally the most difficult to change but the promise of a recent study is that we can change our cognitions – the processes happening in our mind that might be getting in our way – by attending to our bodily experiences.

In the study, researchers found that people with a greater body awareness showed a greater propensity for mind to be influenced by their body.

What does this mean in everyday life?

Bodily experiences can influence cognition without us realising. So much of our behaviour happens before we are even aware that a decision needs to be made – or has been made.

However, by paying attention to our bodily experiences, we can lift the curtain on our seemingly automatic responses, catch them, influence them (by adjusting our physical experience), and modify behaviour.

To feel more powerful, for example, stand tall. It’s no accident that we talk about ‘shrinking away’ from, or ‘standing up to’, people or challenge.

To feel more confident, more powerful and less anxious, adopt a power pose and hold it for two minutes. Think superhero style with your body expanded, chest out, and hands on hips. 

There is a greater chance of being viewed favourably, or receiving a favourable response when the other person is physically comfortable. Perhaps this is why pillow talk is such an important part of relationships. When we feel relaxed, close, comfortable, conversation is more likely to be patient, relaxed, tender.

The metaphors we use everyday are a clue to embodied cognitions.

Thoughts and feelings can sometimes feel like they are impervious to change, as though while we were sleeping they were set in stone, locked in a vault, and guarded by black suited, unsmiling security guards. The rub is that behaviour, whether healthy or otherwise, shoots out from whatever is happening upstairs.

The good news is that there is a back door, accessible by paying attention to and modifying our bodily experiences. A behaviour, attitude, thought or feeling that isn’t working so well can be shifted by changing something in the physical environment – temperature (warm up to/ freeze out), comfort (soften up/ harden up), posture (open up to or stand up to (the positive)/ shut down to or shrink away from (the negative)), music (calm/powerful/energetic/sleepy), lighting (light up/dim down). Difficult conversation? Offer the comfy chair. Want someone to warm to your point of view? Check the temperature of the room.

The marketers and savvy store owners are already onto this, luring us with colour, images, lighting, music, smells – all without us realising. (Campbell’s Soup have increased sales by removing a spoon and adding steam (which embodies warmth) to their in-store displays.)

Armed with the knowledge that our cognitions are influenced by our bodily experiences, you have a sweet spot for effecting more positive behaviours and responding to the world more effectively.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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