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Many years ago, Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who transformed the field of psychology, became aware that some emotional states were accompanied by corresponding physical reactions, such as a rapid heartbeat or sweaty palms. Since then, many physiological signals have been harnessed into useful measurements that can be detected by machines such as the polygraph (lie detector). Yet long before we had machines, what about our own sensing abilities?

Become aware of your body’s innate emotional signals.

The easiest molecular change to notice in our bodies comes from the cocktail of stress hormones. We fear a man walking down the street—he seems menacing or we narrowly avoid a traffic accident. We imagine awful things that will probably never come to pass: we worry.

Body Clues come from the cellular level, when adrenaline (the photomicrograph above), the preeminent stress signal, prepares us to fight or flee. 

Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is a molecular signal of distress that tells our bodies to get ready for action. It ensures that there is enough sugar in the blood to keep things going by facilitating liver cells to free glucose from its storage form, called glycogen, and release it into the blood.

Stress (the fight-or-flight response), which can be triggered by an acute physical or mental challenge, creates a chemical drumroll that moves energy to our muscles, increases blood pressure to get oxygen to the cells, and accelerates everything needed for immediate survival. If the cell receives a message of danger, it enables us to fight or run away. Almost every cell type in the body has receptors for adrenaline, though each responds in its own specific way. Heart cells beat faster in the presence of adrenaline, while cells in the pancreas stop secreting insulin. Every part of us has a job to do to deliver us from danger. 

  • To ensure that our blood sugar is elevated, our heart beats faster—a body clue that emotional and molecular change is taking place.
  • Circulation shifts to fuel the big muscles in the legs, enabling us to run away if we have to. When blood moves to the legs, it moves away from the hands; this is why icy, clammy hands signal (another body clue) that we may be experiencing stress or fear.
  • We breathe faster and more shallow
  • The jaw clenches and muscles in the shoulder and neck tense.

All these physical changes result from the communications between molecules and cells; in this case, molecules of adrenaline (along with other stress hormones) connect with receptors on heart, muscle, and lung cells—and in the case of long-term, sustained stress affects immune cells.

When our cells broadcast a signal of danger, the whole body responds with detectable evidence. The same is true with the opposite signal: the all clear that comes when we realize the “menacing” man is smiling hello as he passes by, or our near accident has been avoided. We relax. Our breathing slows down; our clenched jaw and tight muscles release their tensions, and our hands warm up. Just as our cells listen to their surrounding environment, so can we listen to the echoes of their activity within us. And as our awareness of these responses increases, we can learn how to manage and, if need be, influence them intentionally. As we get better at reading our body’s clues, we can learn to respond in healthier ways.

Set aside a few minutes now to tune in to how your body is feeling in this moment.

Exploration: Body Scan

  • Close your eyes. Breathe naturally. Notice whether there are any places in your body that feel tense or tight.
  • Notice the temperature of your hands.
  • Now put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly and become aware of the rhythm of your breathing. Which has more movement: your chest or belly?
  • Notice how you are holding your jaw and shoulders.
  • These observations give you a sensory picture of now.
  • Be aware that it is not simply physical events that trigger our “stress cocktails”; our minds play an important role in our chemistry. If we imagine a stressful situation or worry, stress hormones are released.  

Pay attention

Body clues can make you aware of your inner emotional state, and they are with you always—you can pay attention to them anywhere and at any time. For example, next time you’re in a meeting and find that your hands are freezing, note that your cells may be saying, “FEAR. Danger.” Now that you have received their message, what action do you want to take? Cells are always in the NOW, only your thoughts and emotions can take them into imagined danger.  Your body will give you clues to what you are thinking and feeling.  Learn how to tune in, your life and health will thank you.

To explore more, sign up for the Lessen Stress on demand course.