Risk Management Through Somatic-based Learning
During situations that increase stress, our fundamental capability to gracefully navigate risk exists both in the mind and in the body. The body helps the mind decipher our course of action.
Through the systems that surround us, we learn ways to ignore, dismiss, or override the body. This is beneficial. Instead of screaming out in pain or lashing out in anger, we modulate and use skills to manage or talk about our experience. These patterns of containment and meaning making have a cost. They limit access to our body and mind as a resource.
In our culture, our body is more of a vehicle than a co-pilot. We underestimate and underutilize the power of the body to help us thrive.
Our soma — our body and brain — work together. When we know how they work in tandem, we gain perspective that allows choice in our response. Our body becomes a conscious co-pilot.
To manage risk through the body happens in three ways. We learn how our mind and body choose, decipher, and optimize information to create our story. We learn how our body responds to stress to manage our basic needs to thrive. And we learn ways to increase and understand the communication between the two.
These insights bring clarity and confidence to our response. It allows us to be in choice — open and flexible to alternative perspectives. It helps us create our own safety net to manage risk with others through the co-modulation of our experience in our body and with others.
Managing risk is an essential skill toward a sustainable and thriving world. One that creates space for all people to be unique and contribute to the whole. It makes a better way possible. It uses a common crisis we all face — managing intra- and inter-personal risk — and offers a step toward a new vision.
The Body – The Key to Risk Management
As a species we are hard-wired to pay attention to discomfort. Discomfort alerts us that something is off. Yet, discomfort also helps us grow. It informs us of the edges of our capacity. Physical discomfort that we choose is easier to understand and navigate. Interpersonal discomfort is complex and risky.
We learn to navigate physical discomfort. You name an objective, train and practice, take ibuprofen when you overexert, and try again if you fail.
We are not taught how to navigate interpersonal discomfort. It is assumed that we know how with no objective, training, practice, and without failing. When we inevitably fail, we often hide our failure. We feel embarrassed. We are unaware that the complex results of interpersonal discomfort is interwoven in our body and stories.
We feel risk in interpersonal situations because something is at stake for us. Our body/brain system contain evolutionary layers that manage our needs for safety, belonging, and dignity. These are layered into our body, nervous system, and brain. These layers and corresponding needs optimize our ability to thrive. Every person has a different way to manage these needs and each need has a different meaning to each person.
Conscious awareness of how we respond to interpersonal stress give us a clue into how we manage our need for safety, belonging and dignity. It also offers us an advantage. We understand the edges of our capability, know when we are close the edge, and employ strategies to optimize our response. When we bring consciousness to our responses and patterns, we uncover a key to manage risk through our body.
Basic Needs to Thrive
We are a complex interchange woven of intricate threads of connection via nerve pathways, fascia, and organs. You are the result of years of patterning, winnowing, and practice.
Our distributed nervous system – the nerve pathways from our skin to our gut – interpret the world through sensation. These sensations stimulate chemicals that send signals via the nervous system to our body and brain that generate the impulse for all we do – our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
The systems that surround you provide implicit and explicit guidelines for how to behave. In order to stay safe, belong and have dignity, you learn, adopt, and adhere to these implicit guidelines. You disregard aspects of yourself that feel unsafe and adopt practices and habits that help you belong. Through this process, you walk your path of dignity.
The result feels like you. You became your habits. You are so fully your habits that to think outside of your box, or act in a way that is different, or have a bigger, new, burst of emotion is disruptively uncomfortable. It actually hurts inside of your body. Your stomach is upset, your breath gets short, you feel sick, your throat gets sore, your body becomes tight and hard to relax, and many other physical manifestations of your discomfort.
These are your bodies alarm bells when you take new action. Maybe you are in a difficult conversation, or you take the lead in a new way, or bring your voice when you are normally quiet, if the move is new to you, your body responds. It sets in motion a series of chemical processes that influence your thoughts, mood, and actions to bring you back to normal – to homeostasis.
Homeostasis is your body at its rest. Your rest and my rest are different. Not only is your essential purpose fundamentally different than anyone else – more about that later – but the way we were shaped to feel safe, belong, and have dignity is different. Every single person on the planet has a slightly different version of homeostasis. And when anyone’s homeostasis is disrupted their system sets off alarm bells. What disrupts our system might be different, but we all get disrupted.
Disruption is generated from a sensation. A sense of something outside of or inside you that challenges your homeostasis. These sensations initiate chemical signals along your neural pathways. Your body and brain respond to these signals in their patterned way.
We react to maintain safety, stay in connection with our tribe, and uphold our dignity. If we don’t know these needs exist and do not understand how to manage them, we get taken on a wild ride through waves of emotion or weeks of shutdown until we arrive at a place stable enough to renegotiate the relationship. Occasionally, we become stuck in our response.
With awareness of our three basic needs to thrive – safety, connection, and dignity – and how we become reactive interpersonally, we gain language to name how our body interacts with the mind. This gives us insight into our interpersonal risk management and when our reaction puts others at risk.
Interpersonal challenge ensues when stress increases. The part of our brain responsible for complex thought neurochemically goes offline when we react, and we revert to our well-practiced, less flexible habits.
Not all stress is bad. Stress brings us to the edge of our comfort zone. This grows our capacity. It can also push us out of what Daniel Siegel calls our window of tolerance and set us into reactivity.
What we react to is different for all of us. This is called bias. The patterned way your body and mind respond to stimuli from your environment.
You generate assumptions about events and people from your deep memory. You believe these assumptions to be true. But they are not. They are simply well practiced assumptions that appear to be truth because you gather the data that makes them true.
Change blindness is the study or how our brain fills in details of experiences that are not there. The science behind change blindness shows of the 11 million bits of new data per second people observe, our body and brain take in only about 50 bits or less than 1%. Our body/brain system generates over 99% of the information we believe to be in front of us from our deep memory.
Your brain generates a series of predictions says Eric Vance from the 1% of new data you take in. You pull historical stories about the event and create new stories to make sense of it. While your brain strives to make meaning of the event, your body also adjusts – neurochemically. You show your response through emotions and action. You call a friend or cry or get angry at the dog or a fence post. You respond to the events in your patterned way. In the way that maintains your version of safety, connection, and dignity.
This is how the body/brain system works. It uses your life experience to generate possible outcomes from the data and then takes action. It handles the situation in your habitual way.
This way may be ideal for you. But it may not be ideal for others. Or maybe you are tired of producing the same results from your response. Change is possible. It begins with sensation.
The brain is an efficient, pattern detection organ. It evolved in four layers beginning with the distributed nervous system – the pathways of nerve throughout our body. As we evolved, our early organisms had the ability to sense and move. They would move and when they sensed a block, signals would travel to ganglia – nerve clusters – along a central line of nerves and initiate a new path of travel.
We sense through our nerves close to the edges of our body. This evolutionary layer still exists. It exists as our sensory motor nervous system. Its foundation is our sense of touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound. Senses also include internal sensations of the body, specifically the gut and heart – organs that have more neural synapses than the brain. Sensation is the foundation of our awareness.
Through evolution, we added capability. As the brain stem developed, it allowed for centralized reflexes and impulses. We could fight, flee, or freeze. This aspect of the brain managed our safety. Species were no longer at the mercy of their environment, they gained agency.
When mammals evolved, they needed a quick way to communicate with their young without words. The limbic system was the second centralized mechanism to layer on top of the other two. It enabled connection. This system interprets signals from the brain and body of another creature and takes action. Like a herd of zebras all organizing with their heads out and butts in to see 360 degrees around the herd. They do this without coordinating. It just happens. Just as we know when something is off in a friend.
The last layer to develop was our neo cortex. It is responsible for dignity, social connection, and the management of our place in the pecking order. This is the place that literally gets shut out when we become reactive. We lose access to complex thought and flexibility.
These evolutionary layers exist in the brain and nervous system. Each part has a role to manage your safety, connection, and dignity. All parts work together to optimize your ability to thrive. If you do not know these are at play, you get stuck in your habit pattern of thought, mood, and action. You do not understand that these are simply practiced responses. To create a new output, you practice something else. Which is not easy.
As the Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman states, the main way the brain operates – what he calls system one thinking – is lazy. The brain already uses 20% of our body’s resources. To take in new data and make new predictions uses more energy. To save energy and optimize the entire body/brain system, it prefers to use habit patterns from our deep memory to respond to the world.
If you have not been taught how and why to interrupt these habits, you reenact them. Sometimes you hope for new results from the same behavior, skills, or experiences. Other times, you settle for what you get. Never knowing that you can or how to change them.
The results are predictable. Our habit pattern of thought, emotion, and action is the fastest path to regain our comfort which equates in our body/brain to survival.
Modern ecological research purports that survival is not the goal of all organisms. The goal of all organisms is to thrive.
This is why trees in the forest cooperate for light and resources. Trees in the forest people! Trees in the forest cooperate to share resources and thrive. We can too.
We have greatly underestimated our body/brain system. We use it in the way we were taught. It is time to innovate and explore the power of our body/mind to connect rather than compete. Change becomes possible through awareness.
Awareness has everything to do with mitigating risk of any kind. To mitigate risk does not mean to strive for comfort. Far from it. To mitigate risk means to do what ever you can to be in conversation about risk before the risky situation happens.
Risk is many things. Risk is a difficult conversation. It threatens your habits of safety, connection, or dignity. Risk is putting your life in the hands of people you marginally trust. Risk is not having the conversations up front and saving them for a better time.
Interpersonal risk is not an easy path. It means you actively build resources that help you navigate complexity. The foundational resource is awareness.
If you are aware, you feel and notice your psychoneurobiological system at work. If you are not, a silent system is working in the background that returns you to a constant state of homeostasis at all costs.
At the slightest hint of something upsetting, our rapid fire, autonomic processes bring us back to our normal. They generate what we see and eliminate anything that threatens our safety, connection, or dignity. Even when the uncomfortable action moves you toward who you want to become or the direction you hope to move, your system tries to stop you.
Your body’s systems help you survive. You may appreciate your system for this. But it is not the way of the future. The system does not yet know the way. You must teach it.
Throughout the last 2,000 years, people have known that awareness is the key to change. They have worked to wake up their observer. To see clearly how they become swept away by their experiences.
The practices they use are quite simple, easy to employ anywhere, and effective. Some people know these practices and choose to use them. Others know they should use them but don’t. More balk at the idea that breath or awareness has anything to do with mitigating risk.
The science is clear. Our nervous system operates autonomically – under our level of consciousness. It manages breath, digestion, and balances our neurochemicals. Paradoxically, our nervous system is also malleable. Through a strong commitment generated by the mind, tied to a deeper, existential understanding of our purpose, we guide our nervous system to heightened capabilities.
When we work with our nervous system, we have the resources to help us and others not only survive but thrive – just like the trees. We have the power to guide our internal and external systems to respond consciously. It is time to step up to take accountability for our impact.
Center is a term used to refer to an actual point two inches below the belly button. It is also a term used to reference a state of mind. These two references are connected. When you need to get out of homeostasis and choose your response, you center. You place your attention on your gut and your breath. When you do this, you bring yourself into the present moment. You pause homeostasis and create a space between stimulus and response.
Breath is important here. When you notice the rise and fall of your chest or gut over a period of five breaths or more, it changes the signals sent to your heart – a powerful mood influencer. The arrythmia of you heart shifts through the breath’s connection with the vagus nerve. This is the physiological reason breath is important. It literally has the power to change the signals your heart sends to your brain. It reduces the amount of time you are triggered. It slows your reactivity. It expands how and what you think. Breath changes the story formed in your mind.
When you center, you anchor in what is happening right now. You gain the ability to take in new data. You remember your commitment. This changes the data your brain selects, and uses to predict and manifest your actions, thoughts, and mood. Therefore, it changes the outcome of the experience. You create your own reality. The reality you want to see.
When you center, you are accountable to a new future that has deep meaning to you. It is connected to your deeper purpose for being. It reminds you why you choose to take big risks.
Center is what some people find when they meditate. Center happens anytime you bring your attention to your body. And if you practice, center changes and deepens over time. If you find it when you meditate, try to meditate in a meeting with your eyes open or in the grocery line.
This give you data. Your experience versus your story of your experience. You begin to separate yourself from the stimulus. You gain new capacity to see your window of tolerance in action.
We are not taught to center. When you pay attention to your breath, you impact your body’s ability to modulate your reaction and find space between stimulus and response. When you center, you become aware and accountable for your reactions. You increase your chances for new action and the likelihood of a positive impact on the people around you.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, Italian research scientist discovered mirror neurons. Neurons in our brain that pick up on emotionally significant responses from other people and set in motion a corresponding action in our body. When you react to events that are emotionally significant – like in an emergency, the systems of other people pick this up and react and respond accordingly. It is part of our limbic system that tunes into others to manage the need of safety. In high risk situations, if you do not know this is happening, you can inadvertently create more drama than you want.
Center help us choose our impact. It lets us be responsible for our actions in a congruent way. Centering builds trust.
The first step to center is to notice your breath. Our lungs change shape when we inhale and exhale. This major organ oxygenates our circulatory system. Our lungs are like balloons that expand and contract at regular intervals. They provide an entrainment – a synchronized rhythm – that impacts the whole body system.
The lungs also massage the heart. Nestled in between the lungs, when you take a deep breath, your heart gets a snuggle.
During a deep breath, your heart rate speeds up a little. When you release the breath your heart rate slows down. The bigger the difference between your inhalation and exhalation heart rate the higher your vagal tone. The higher your vagal tone, the more easily you recover from stress.
Your vagal tone was discovered by Steven Porges and his research team – I include the research team as we all stand on the back of those that have come before us. They realized much like the brain and nervous system, that the vagus nerve also evolved in layers.
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that enervates your viscera, facial expressions, voice box, and other responses. Porges and his research team discovered three layers. These three layers govern different functions: immobilization – a freeze response, mobilization – a fight or flee response, and social connection – our appease response.
When we are unaware of our breath, our vagal tone continues as we have practiced. When we wake up our observer and bring our attention to the breath, we can change the vagal tone, our affect on others, and we gain choice in our response.
With a woke observer, you see your patterns of action, thought, and mood that before lived under your level of consciousness. You notice when you are off. To add to breath, there are skills of the mind that help us understand how to move toward somatically managing risk in relationship.
Our mind creates our personal narrative – how we think about ourselves and others. The narrative is activated through our sensations. We feel, see, hear, a word, action, or emotion and a story pops into our mind: a story line about us or other people.
This happens unconsciously. It is our brain’s role to take data from inside and outside us and rapidly categorize the data and make meaning. This narrative runs in the background of our daily lives. It drives how we meet our three basic needs to thrive: safety, connection, and dignity. These inform everything we do and how we perceive the impact of our thoughts and actions. This narrative is what we have been taught to believe. It is our habit pattern of thought. It is not the truth. It is our truth.
In our complex world, thinking we know the truth provides an extreme challenge. To increase our communication skills and create new outputs that make things happen faster and more smoothly takes more than our current truth allows. To understand and grapple with multiple truths is required. And we rarely learn how to do that skillfully.
The first step is to understand how your story was created. From center, we enter this inquiry. Center provides a space between stimulus – thinking about our story, and response – the reaction to parts of our story not being true.
When you understand that your story is not the story, you are curious in a new way. What is the truth? If my mind and body are not free, how do I free them? You use your body to center yourself and then question your story.
Our sensations drive a narrative. This narrative determines our choices. We make choices that have historically kept us safe, connected, and valued. When you step out of your narrative and into a bigger story it is destabilizing. You become uncomfortable. It feels difficult. We question who we are and why we are here. The questions set you on the path toward your ecological niche – your individual way to contribute to the larger world. The path begins by taking intra- and inter-personal risks.
You learn about your narrative when you reflect on experiences and people, and converse with others. You see how your sensations drive your story. As you open to this fact, you disrupt long-held beliefs. Initially, this is unsettling. You disrupt homeostasis. As you practice stepping out of your story, the disruption becomes more common and less destabilizing. You realize that disruption in relationship happens. And it takes longer to recover when you are unconsciously stuck in your story.
The systems that surround us from birth, our life experiences, and the behaviors and beliefs of our family system influence our story. These are fundamental to who we are. When we question our story, we rock our ego.
Ego is the image we form of our self. It helps us know where we begin and end. It allows us to differentiate from others. It is the keeper of our story.
When we marry our ecological purpose with our ego, we stand our ground and unsettling interpersonal disruption becomes easier to navigate. We know where we stand. We have examined and continue to examine our story. We see other people as individuals examining their story as well, instead of someone trying to take us off our game.
Say you have a conversation with a colleague about an upcoming trip or project. You hope – and often assume – you are on the same page. There is a short time between this trip/project and the next. Most of your trips/projects have been interpersonally easy. You assume this will be as well.
Then, your psychoneurbiology picks up a sensation. This sensation generates an automatic story that something is off. Your automatic protection mechanisms are activated. You begin to associate how this experience will play out from your deep memory. You activate skills to navigate the challenge.
You use your communication skills and mode of connection to discover more. You may go away and seek counsel about this person or idea. Maybe you confront them directly. Or you appease and try to connect with them to gain more information. These are our three basic moves to settle our disruption: move away, against, or toward.
You still feel a rift. Your body relies on your stories as your resource. You decide checking in would be a bad idea. Maybe you have seen them react before and don’t want to elicit or deal with that response. You are not sure what to say. You begin to prepare for the trip or project with this felt sense of dis-ease.
You come about your method of resolution honestly. Most people are never taught how to enter and navigate these conversations. Under stress, you revert to your baseline skills.
As we infrequently reflect on our narrative, how we navigate interpersonal conversations and situations, and rarely have a safe place to practice new skills, our skill level and choices remain stagnant. We continue to hope for a change but often reproduce the same results. Or surprisingly, get new results but have no idea how we did it and are unable to recreate the positive results.
At this point, all tied up in your stories about yourself and the other person, you operate at an interpersonal deficit. Then, you add risk.
It is easy to see how you become reactive. Not only are your basic needs to thrive at risk, but the very foundation on which you have built your life is threatened. No wonder we react when interpersonal relationships are difficult!
At this point, you breathe. You re-center in your purpose and commitment. You remember you are reacting. This person is also stuck in their story. You become curious about yourself and the other. You center. You observe how you respond to them. You seek a trusted advisor for counsel. Then you enter the conversation, centered and grounded.
Center religiously during discomfort. Your system will cut off your neocortical capability and revert to your “engrained habits.” When you lose this connection – the neurochemical cycle usually lasts about 90 minutes – your system relies on your habit patterns of action to respond to the situation. When you center, you interrupt your habit patterns. In this space between stimulus and response you have a choice.
Historically, our automatic responses were a survival advantage. In the early millennia of our species, we needed to make snap judgments about safety to stay alive, connection to know who to affiliate with, and the pecking order to appropriately contribute to the survival of our tribe. Our snap judgments are still useful. These help us know when something is off. The way we manage our judgments is outdated.
There is more data both inside and outside of us that illuminates our judgment. When we center, we learn how to access and frame the data. This anchoring of data grounds our judgment. When we center, we calm our neurobiology. This helps others become less reactive. When we center, and question our story, we help create the most optimal result to thrive.
To manage risk somatically, we
- understand the world we see is generated from sensation and our deep memory, and those drive our thoughts, emotions and action;
- center and find the space between stimulus and response, and
- question our story.
The Way Forward
The body doesn’t lie. A new way to manage risk is possible when you utilize the capacity of your body and change your story.
A sensation is a sensation. Your automatic unconscious patterns interpret these sensations, make meaning of them, and then act. If you are unaware of this habit pattern of action, you believe what you experience is true. It is true for you, but it is not the truth.
When you name a sensation as a fact and work to reinterpret the sensation, you rewrite your story and find the truer truth.
This process weaves a neural safety net for your benefit and others. The safety net is woven of your resources and skills, and your new story through your conscious commitment to truth on your path toward your ecological niche.
To manage risk through somatic practices, you start at the beginning – your sensations. These are the baseline for grounded truth.
- Name the sensation in the body: location, pressure, temperature, and movement.
- Breathe and center.
- Feel how your body responds to the sensation.
- Notice how you interpret what you feel and experience.
- Anchor in the present: where am I, who am I with, what data do I want to gather, and what is my commitment?
Then, examine your story.
- What do I believe about this person, situation, or experience?
- How do I contribute to this output?
- Make space for your story.
- Question your assumptions.
- Take in new data.
- Connect to a broader story.
Somatically managing risk creates flexibility and choice. It allows all people to fill their needs of safety, connection, and dignity with confidence. A system thrives when all feel safe, a sense of belonging, and an ability to contribute and be valued by the larger whole. Somatically managing risk helps people thrive.
The path is not easy. Reactivity is likely. But the more you practice from center, the more chance you will keep yourself and others calm and connected in risky situations.
Humans are tasked to come together in unprecedented and risky ways. The foundation of connection I suggest is different that the transactional connection we learn. The knowledge lives within, not outside of you. You build your net of safety from the exploration of your ecological niche and your own experience.
There is overwhelming pressure to do good work. Crisis creates pressure and inspires innovative action. The visceral crisis to shift your practices exists in your own body. Use the interpersonal crisis you encounter to trust yourself from the inside out and begin the path toward a generative way to manage risk now and in the future.
 Fogel, A. (2009). The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Siegel, D. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
 Vance, E. (2016). The Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.
 Blake, A. (2018). Your Body is Your Brain. CA: Trokay Press.
 Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
 LaChapelle, D. (1988). Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, Rapture of the Deep: Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life. CO: Finn Hill Arts.
 Wohlleben, P. (2016). The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel and How they Communicate. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books.
 Frankl, V. (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning. Vienna, Austria.
 Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
 Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
 Plotkin, B. (2007). Nature and the Human Soul. New York, NY: New World Library.
 Plotkin, B. (2003). Soulcraft. New York, NY: New World Library.
 Brown, A.M. (2017). Emergent Strategies. Chico, CA: AK Press.