Unhappy woman with tight ropes wrapped around them

Avoiding Overthinking Physical Sensations

By Melanie McNally, PsyD, author of The Emotionally Intelligent Teen

Sometimes people become overly sensitive to body sensations and interpret every single one as meaning something, when that’s just not the case. Not every physical sensation is linked with our minds. Our bodies are constantly working, and sometimes that work can create sensations. And these sensations have absolutely nothing to do with our emotions, thoughts, or situations. You might be wondering what the harm is in being tuned into every sensation you experience. The answer is that when we’re so focused on our inner world, whether it’s physical sensations, feelings, or thoughts, we’re missing out on our external world. We’re missing out on experiences and relationships; we’re missing out on participating in life. How do you know if this is you? How do you know if you’re overly focused on physical sensations? Consider these questions:

• Do you find yourself constantly aware of what you’re feeling physically?

• Do you experience a lot of minor or vague health issues like mild stomachaches or headaches, body aches, or muscle pains?

• Do people point out to you that you complain about body aches and pains a lot?

• Do you find that you miss out on things because of undiagnosed physical complaints?

If you found yourself answering yes to many of the above questions, the good news is that you’re super in tune with your body. You feel physical sensations easily and that’s great! The not-so-great news is that you might be giving too much weight to these physical sensations and allowing them to have too much power over you. Well, you might be using them as the complete picture, rather than just one point that makes up the picture.

You want to give the physical sensations the same value as other data points such as your feelings, thoughts, and the context. You don’t want to give your physical sensations more value than any other data point. If you’re someone who notices everything going on inside, you might find that your emotions are harder to tolerate. Let’s consider this for a moment. Suppose that you notice fatigue, low energy, and a headache as you’re getting ready for the day. You interpret these physical feelings as meaning you’re depressed. Now you start thinking negative thoughts like, Today’s going to be so hard, and I have no motivation and so much to do. Your depression now feels even heavier and harder to manage, so you decide to call in sick to work and get back into bed.

Your physical sensations determined how you felt and, because you focused so much on these sensations, your emotions felt too hard to manage. It can be tricky to know when to pay attention to physical sensations and when to dismiss them, but just like everything else, it’s a learning process. As you learn how to tune into your body, practice letting go of the sensations that don’t provide much value. Make that your practice so you’re not focusing on the smaller ones.

If you find that you rate every physical sensation high and that most sensations are difficult for you to tolerate, start with the one that is most tolerable. Practice letting that one go so you can still participate in things, and continue practicing until it’s no longer preventing you from doing the things you’re scheduled to do. Once you notice progress, move on to the next sensation that’s most tolerable and do the same thing. Be patient with yourself as you go and know that it’ll get better with time.

Melanie McNally, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and brain coach who helps tweens, teens, and young adults become the superheroes of their life stories. She is founder of Destination You, an online support space for youth and their parents.

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