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Sitting with discomfort

June 28, 2023
Head and brain in glitter

Something I have become increasingly aware of over the last few years is just how often I feel uncomfortable. By uncomfortable I mean any of the multitude of emotions or sensations that arise within me and in response to my environment or thoughts that result in a somatic reaction- that ‘knot in the pit of the stomach’ feeling… waking at 4am with a racing mind… or a sudden rise in heart rate as I feel a burning sensation rising in my chest. All of these things are so clearly messages my body is sending me that something has changed or needs my attention. It actually seems so unbelievably obvious that to write about it seems redundant.

Except it’s not redundant because what I learn time and time again the more I talk about and share my own experience is that- I am not alone in this awareness. These are simply the uncomfortable parts of being human and doctors are not immune to that.

Even as smart people (which arguably, doctors are) we often struggle with the ability to notice discomfort within us and respond skilfully and with compassion. Instead, what occurs for so many of us is that we learn over time to disregard this felt sense of self in favour for the constructed sense of self– the story our minds tell us again and again that very often actually distorts the truth.

We learn how to ignore our bodies in favour of our minds.

We find our mind telling us that we “should be more tough” or mentally rehearsing scenarios waiting for the opportunity to play out these silently well rehearsed responses in real life. Or we find ourselves falling down the rabbit hole of wishing things were different to how they actually are or berating ourselves for responding to something in a certain way. Very rarely do we show ourselves the grace and equanimity to sit in that discomfort and skilfully steer our body and mind through that innate stress response. We rarely do this because it takes time and self compassion- both things so many of us find ourselves lacking in this busy, modern world. So we continue to gloss over and repress the discomfort of being human.

What is the significance of this?

Over time this results in a subconscious avoidance of the somatic experience of the body.

Something happens to us → our body reacts → and our mind then often without realising begins the well worn path of distraction that takes away from the somatic experience arising within us.

Cue food, social media scrolling, smoking, alcohol, mindless binge watching TV or perhaps even subconsciously seeking out the familiar pattern of stress or busyness to take us away from what ever this precipitant experience and resultant somatic reaction was. Over time, our ability to sit with the discomfort of a body that responds innately to stimuli- both pleasant and unpleasant- diminishes.

Like any skill if we don’t use it, we lose it.

What we talk about on retreat is that in these admittedly engineered environments, where we intentionally remove some of the day to day stressors of life, this tendency towards escapism not infrequently becomes more noticeable. Without those pressing life demands, we are left with a space that in its unfamiliarity alone, feels uncomfortable. The allure of busyness often more enticing than we ever realise in our day-to-day. In my own experience as I tend to my own evolving journey of sitting with discomfort, I have increasingly found that the awareness of my stress response evokes a distinctly uncomfortable warmth in my chest. I don’t like it. It feels gripping in a way that I know in years gone past I have engaged in all sorts of tools like working more and more, people pleasing and definitely doom scrolling on my phone in an attempt to try and soothe. Now, I tend to write as I notice these sensations of discomfort arising. My own foray into blogging and content creation has been a hesitant step towards sharing the human experience rather than recoiling into isolation and shame.

So, have you noticed that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings tend to take up residence somewhere in your body? And if so, where? What do they feel like?

How do you nurture yourself with kindness as you notice these often unwelcome house guests?

Is there anything you could do differently as you shine your gentle light of awareness on them?