Writing to feel 

By Sarah Cannata

Humans are incredible. We invent nifty tools like the internet and smartphones. Regardless of what the next ‘big thing’ is (artificial intelligence is a hot topic), we cannot change our human nature. People need certain things to survive; connection immediately comes to mind. And we can’t feel truly connected to others unless we feel safe. (And if the word ‘safe’ jars with you, think of stability, comfort, support or, if you’re getting lost in terminology, the opposite of overwhelm.)

We are more disconnected than ever before

I can grab my smartphone and speak with someone on the other side of the world in seconds. Thanks to a quick Google search, I have a wealth of information at my fingertips. We typically don’t engage with our local communities or even our friends how we used to. More is being asked of people than ever in our 24/7, fast-paced world. As mammals, we’re not built to be switched on all the time. Our physical bodies can’t recognise the difference between the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response caused by a public speaking opportunity (drawing on personal experience here) and our lives genuinely being in danger. This means that for so many people—especially those with trauma—our lives are dominated by incomplete autonomic nervous system responses. And too often, we get stuck in loops.

Given I’ve referred to trauma, it’s important to state I see trauma through the same lens as Dr Gabor Maté. 

The Polyvagal Theory

I’ll preface the next portion of this article by stating I am not a nervous system expert. I’m someone with lived experience who has learned about the latest neuroscience and trauma through my Embodied Processing Practitioner training. Embodied processing is a body-based approach to working with trauma. I weave all these learnings into my work and teach people how to use writing as a healing and self-care tool. If you’re looking for the pioneers behind The Polyvagal Theory and nervous system experts, I recommend checking out Irene LyonDr Stephen Porges and Deb Dana as a starting point.

Understanding The Polyvagal Theory changed everything for me because survival physiology underpins this work. Here’s a simplified breakdown.

The autonomic nervous system

  1. Sympathetic nervous system – fight/flight response
  2. Parasympathetic nervous system  
  • Rest/digest – low Dorsal tone
  • Freeze/fawn – high Dorsal tone
  • Ventral vagal – connection, social engagement

A regulated nervous system doesn’t mean we never experience stress or challenges; or that we never feel fight/flight. The full range of human emotions and autonomic nervous system states are part of the full spectrum of the human experience. Someone with a regulated nervous system can move through these states; the responses are complete. A person with a dysregulated nervous system gets stuck in certain states, which often leads them to reach for something in an attempt to get back to a ventral vagal state (you can see how this can become a vicious cycle).

Feeling into the body, into the felt sense

So many of us are running on auto-pilot all the time. We don’t feel our bodies until they scream out at us. I was this person for so many years. For most of my life, not feeling anything was easier, and I never gave it a second thought. I thought I was just built that way. It didn’t even cross my mind that something else was sitting below the surface, bubbling away. Looking back, the only time I recall feeling was when I was writing. Although I had no awareness of this at the time, I began using writing as a healing and self-care tool from about 13, during a particularly challenging period of my life (I go into more detail in my course). Since engaging in personal development work and my embodied processing certification, I now realise writing was the only way I could get out of my cognitive mind and feel my body. Feel the felt sense of a particular moment.

Writing to feel

For me, writing has been the gateway to understanding so much more about myself. I’m no longer simply a body moving throughout my day. After much training, I have an awareness of the sensations in my body as I’m living through an experience. For a little while, I thought I was losing my mind, but now I understand that all of the feelings and sensations were there all along; I was unconsciously stuffing them down. I was turning my back on my physical body.

This kind of writing (I call it embodied writing) is a practice. I find writing can absolutely be an out-of-body experience, a massive brain dump. Writing can also be something very sacred. A way to welcome all parts of you—mind, body, spirit and soul—as you gradually let go of control and allow your body to guide your writing.

The gift of witnessing

Embodied writing takes practice. It’s not a quick fix, but I hope this reiterates why I continue writing daily as a way to continue building my capacity and the connection I have with my true self. When you feel your body in the moment and accept whatever sensations arise as reality, you’re no longer caught up in the story of what’s happening (and what ultimately feeds your anxiety or [enter whatever emotion you’re experiencing]). You accept your whole self exactly as you are in the moment.

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