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Decoding stress - Awarely Blog

How to Know When We're Stressed Out: Tips for Decoding Stress

Mar 19, 2024

I had a humble reminder last week about the different ways our brains and bodies communicate. 

I've been experiencing a lot of change lately—leaving a big job in tech, going back to school to deepen my understanding of trauma-informed leadership and neuroscience, and learning to be an entrepreneur.

Even when we invite in "good" change that brings us closer to greater alignment with our values and well-being and how we want to show up in the world to impact real change, change can be perceived as a threat. Change is something new for our brain, body and nervous systems to adapt to. We need space and time to re-orient to new pathways of choice and new environments. 

My brain has been saying, "This is great," "We got this," "and "This is good." 
My body has been saying, "Hold on," "This is scary," "Are we okay?".

More often than not, we listen to our brain because our brain is always right, right? And then our body speaks even louder. In lack of sleep, fear, worry, endless thought loops, and overwhelm. Old habits and worn-out patterns rear their ugly heads in an effort to keep us safe from the unknown. 

Our brains and bodies tell different stories, and we have to listen to both. Our brain speaks in a language we all understand—a language of words. Our body speaks in an entirely different language—the language of sensations, imagery, behaviour, affect, and meaning-making (also known as the SIBAM model, as we call it in the Somatic Experiencing world). This is how we can often feel excited and scared at the same time (both can be true). 

Here's a quick intro to SIBAM, one of my favourite ways to decode how stress is showing up for me:
 1. Sensation
- Experiences that originate inside the body (temperature, muscle activity, digestion, balance etc.)

2. Images
- Experiences that originate outside the body (memory, visions, dreams, symbols)

3. Behaviour 
- Any activity observable from outside the body (verbal or non-verbal)

4. Affect
- Our emotions (fear, sadness, anger, joy etc.)

5. Meaning 
- Beliefs, ideas, judgments, thoughts, analysis and interpretations that attempt to make sense of an experience 

When we learn to pay attention to these channels, we can start to understand the whole of our experience (not just what the brain wants us to believe). This is how we begin to reestablish safety, process unresolved stress and move through big change.

More often than not, it's not the cognitive story that helps us unravel built-up emotions, overwhelm and yes, stress. Instead, it's the act of building awareness and regaining access to the whole of our experience instead of repressing, denying or compartmentalizing that allows us to shift our relationship with stress. 

Your embodied leadership takeaway:
What story is your body telling you that's different from your brain? What listening channel do you have greater (or lesser) access to? 


Are you curious about decoding stress for yourself? Let's talk! 
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