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Why Change Has to Start in the Body: Part 1

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Many of us don't know just how good our bodies are, or how necessary it is to pay attention to our bodies when we're trying to make changes of any kind - emotionally, spiritually, relationally, habitually. In the next few posts, I want to highlight why we can't find lasting change without paying attention to our bodies.

Your Autonomic Nervous System

When you’re born, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is not yet fully developed. It’s still taking shape in your early years. Your ANS controls all of your internal organs and connects basically your whole body to your brain. Without your ANS, you would have to think about regulating your heartbeat, digesting your food, regulating your hormones, and much more. Your ANS takes care of all of that - working very hard to keep you alive and healthy.

Our ANS is also like a radar. It’s constantly monitoring everything. This is called neuroception because it’s not conscious perception. It's constantly taking in data from:

  1. Inside our bodies

  2. Outside our bodies

  3. Between us and other bodies

And when our ANS detects that everything inside, outside, and between is safe, then the priority of the ANS is to connect with other people and to God.

When this is the case, our social engagement system is online and is seeking connection in the environment around us, wanting to connect with others.

Your Social Engagement System

Our social engagement system is made up of cranial nerves that run through our face and head and down to our hearts. These nerves control our facial expressions, our eyes, our hearing, our voices, and our heartbeat.

So when all is safe, we can make eye contact and smile. The voices of others sound pleasant to our ears and our voices are warm and friendly as we speak. We might even tilt our heads in compassion or interest, and our heartbeat is regulated and calm.

But when our ANS detects even the slightest hint of danger - either inside our body, outside our body, or something in someone else’s body, it will flip from prioritizing connection to prioritizing protection.

And at that moment, our social engagement system turns off. As protection is now the priority, connection no longer matters. Everything starts to sound different. What was a pleasant sound only moments ago can now sound grating. Our voices become tense or stern, our heartbeat increases, we get stiff in our neck, and we get tunnel vision. Our focus becomes problem-solving. All the energy that was going into connection is now diverted into mobilizing our bodies - fight it, flee from it, or freeze.

It’s a beautiful part of the way God designed our bodies to adapt to danger. And when we’re actually in danger, this automatic response saves our lives. Without it, we wouldn’t last a week.

If you want to learn to work with your body to make lasting changes, sign up for Rooted.

Your Body is Responding All the Time!

This automatic response is happening in our bodies all throughout the day in natural waves, responding to threats of varying degrees.

For example,

  • Internal threat - When your ANS receives the data that your stomach is empty or your blood sugar is dropping, it mobilizes you to eat something by sending you the "I’m hungry" message so that you'll go eat something and eliminate the threat. This is why you get "hangry" and have less patience for people if you don't eat. Your ANS will keep you in protection mode until the threat of hunger is eliminated.

  • External threat - When a mosquito lands on your skin and begins to try to take your blood, your ANS activates and mobilizes your body to swat it in order to eliminate the threat.

  • Between bodies threat - When your coworker is laser-focused on a project and doesn't hear you call her name, your ANS will flip into either changing your mind about interrupting (flight) or raising your voice (fight).

From these ordinary examples, you can see that most of the time, we don’t even realize that our ANS is serving us all day long in dealing automatically with small things… keeping us alive & regulated. Each of these threats is short-lived and dealt with easily.

Your Body is Designed for Relationship

And you learned these amazing skills in your early years because humans aren't born fully developed. God's good and beautiful design requires us to learn from the people around us - our families, our communities, and our environments. God is a community within himself (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), and his intention is for us to be in community with him and with others. Everything about the way he designed our autonomic nervous system speaks of this beautiful intention.

But what we learn in our early years doesn't always shape us in healthy ways. If you want to read more, continue to Part 2.

If you want to learn to work with your body to make lasting changes, sign up for Rooted.


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