Will Increasing Internal Awareness Make Things Worse?

Blue solid foreground with text "Will increasing internal awareness make things worse?" and to the side a picture of a pale skinned woman in a light grey shirt.
A lot of times there's a fear that if you increase internal awareness you'll just make things worse, but you can avoid that.

Will increasing internal awareness make things worse?

Do you worry about this?

I wanted to address a question that comes up frequently as people are working through burnout recovery. A lot of times there’s a fear that if you start paying attention to what’s going on inside, increasing this internal awareness, that you’re just going to make things worse. Especially if you live with chronic pain, that you’re just going to feel in pain more, and it’s going to actually worsen your quality of life instead of improve it. 

And that’s definitely something that I was afraid of, because I’ve lived with chronic pain since I was 12 years old. Just as I’m sitting here talking to you now, I’m in pain. For me, at the moment, it’s pretty low level compared to my pain, but it’s just something that’s always present. And I was really afraid when I started working on my sensory stuff… that’s kind of where I started with burnout recovery… that it was just going to make it worse, that I was going to start noticing all of these sounds, and I was going to be even more overwhelmed by sound than I already was. 

I was really afraid when I started working on my sensory stuff, that it was just going to make it worse.

That I was going to notice my pain even more, that I was going to just be even more overwhelmed than I already was. It turned out not to be the case, but I wanted to address that head on because it’s a very common fear, and if you do it in a way that is literally just noticing your pain more often: that probably will happen. But there are other ways to do it, and what has worked very well for me, for my clients, and other people whom I’ve heard stories from, is simply noticing very, very gently, very small things about areas of your body that aren’t in pain, or aren’t in as bad pain, at the moment. 

It could start with something as simple as noticing your hands. Like are your hands warm or cool at this moment? Are they itchy? Are they tingly? Are they scratchy? Are they fidgety? Do they want to move? So what sensations are you noticing? Are you noticing any clothing that’s touching your hands or any other objects that are touching your hands? I’ve got these little fidget toys, just little wooden blocks that I fidget with, that I can feel the impression of having squeezed them just a moment ago. Just simply, what do you notice? What’s there and what’s not there? 

Maybe they’re not itchy, that’s great! You can start with those negative things too. It’s like “it’s not this,” that is a beginning, and over time it will grow to being able to notice what is there. Just bringing your attention to one area of your body that’s either not in pain or not as intense, just for a few seconds. It doesn’t have to be that hard, it doesn’t have to be that long, it doesn’t have to be your new special interest that you dive into, and that itself can be too intense. 

Becoming aware slowly

You want to start gentle, slow, just a little bit at a time. And, as you do this, your brain will be slowly attenuating to the fact that it’s not all bad. If you don’t have really great internal awareness, it can feel like everything is all or nothing. Like it’s “I’m in pain,” or “I’m not.” “It’s all bad,” or “it’s all just numb, normal, fine, can’t really tell.” But as you do this more and more, you’ll start to notice differences, you’ll start to notice nuances, you’ll start to be able to disambiguate this type of experience from that and you’ll start to notice ‘when this happens, this is how I feel’, ‘when that happens, this is how I feel.’

Over time you’ll be able to notice more of an, “Okay, so I am feeling something bad. What about it is bad? Can I fix that part so it doesn’t feel as bad? Can I shift my position in a way that is more comfortable for me? Can I eat something? Can I notice that I’m hungry, or that I’m thirsty, or that I need to use the restroom, or that I need to turn that stereo down, or ask someone else to do something to adjust the environment in ways that feel more comfortable for me?” 

As you do this more and more, you’ll start to notice differences, you’ll start to notice nuances, you’ll start to be able to disambiguate this type of experience from that.

Or, alternatively, sometimes when you’re feeling really great and you’re enjoying something there could be a fear that “if I pay too much attention to that, I’m going to get out of this enjoyment,” well, I’ve… I need to move because that position was causing more pain. See, I can make that little adjustment and then continue with the video and not be in as much pain after the end of this. So you can make those little real time adjustments in your life that can lead to you not using as much energy… 

Alright, I was talking about when you’re enjoying something. So there could be a fear that you’ll pull out of that enjoyment, and my experience has often been that I’ll get really intensely into something for a while and then I’ll feel really shaky afterwards. And it’ll take me a while to realize that I’m actually pretty hungry, like my blood sugar is very low, and I need to do something about that. But if I noticed earlier on, and I had some snacks handy, because now I keep snacks handy with me, I can notice, “oh, I’m getting kind of hungry”, or “my brain is not working as well”, or “I’m noticing various other physical effects.” 

And so I can just reach over and get a snack, and I can eat as I’m doing this. I don’t have to interrupt so that I can stay in the enjoyment longer. Or I can just shift my position, as I did a moment ago, so that my leg doesn’t fall asleep and I can enjoy the enjoyable thing more without having negative side effects later. So bringing your attention, just briefly, to various experiences in your body and noticing them, little bits over time, will add up and over time it’ll start to become a bit of a background awareness of just what’s going on inside and how things are affecting you. 

It will allow you the abilities to make adjustments in your life, to use less energy to get through situations so that you will be able to recover from burnout and make other decisions. Make all sorts of, and this is long term, but be able to make other decisions in your life that are bigger, that require you being able to notice how things affect you.

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Picture of Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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