Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

Christie Kim, MHC

We’ve all heard the saying “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” which speaks to the importance of recognizing signals or potential threats. While we’re usually looking outward, some of the most important signals come from within. Our bodies are always talking to us, sending messages about how we feel and what we need--but are we listening? Most of us are used to recognizing and responding to certain body-based sensations such as hunger or tiredness, but it is often more difficult to tune into our emotional sensations.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk discusses the importance of having an “efficient smoke detector” so that we can discern our bodies’ signals and respond appropriately. Distinguishing the smoke from a candle versus a raging house fire is just as important as recognizing whether we’re stressed by an annoying commute or because we’re feeling unsafe. If we’re disconnected from ourselves our emotions can get muffled. We might sense no difference between the candle or the house fire. We might ignore a gut feeling that someone is untrustworthy; conversely, we might feel like everyone is out to get us.

It can be especially difficult for those who have experienced trauma, but connecting to our internal signals is a daily practice for all of us. We don’t want to get caught in a raging fire, but we also don’t want to erupt every time we smell smoke. Tuning into our body’s signals is a valuable practice, one that can help you respond to situations appropriately and effectively as well as bring you closer to and more in sync with yourself.

Here are some ways to fine-tune your internal smoke detector:

  • Check in with yourself. When your body is sending you a signal, take a moment to receive it. If emotions feel too big, you can start with physical sensations: notice your breath, your heartbeat. Do you feel tension, pressure, or heat? For additional guidance you can use a meditation app, journal, or reference a feelings wheel. Everyday there are new opportunities to learn to identify and name your internal sensations. As van der Kolk states, “knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way.”

  • Befriend the sensations. An important part of practicing mindfulness is resisting the urge to judge whatever comes up. Emotions are neither good nor bad. They are signals with purpose: they tell you who you are and what you need. If you need to, simply start with the intention of tolerating your feelings without judging or pushing them away.

  • Be curious about what you need. When we’re feeling off-balance, often our automatic response is to reach for external, quick fixes such as food, shopping, alcohol, or substances, but the relief is only temporary. Instead, you might need a deep breath or alone time or to reach out to someone. Taking a moment to ask yourself what you need can get you closer to actually getting your needs met.

Developing a comfortable connection with your internal signals takes time and practice, especially if your smoke detector has been dormant for a while. Therapy is one way to begin exploring your sensations and practicing such mindfulness with support, especially as many feelings may be difficult to sit with on your own. In any case, cultivating sensitivity to what goes on within you can help you feel more connected to yourself.