It’s 12:45 a.m. and I’m wide awake.
I’ve been wide awake at that same time every night for the previous week. I can’t get to sleep for at least two hours, and then I toss and turn uneasily till dawn.
I can’t figure out why. I may have the occasional struggle with insomnia, but this is uncanny. Nothing I am able to do is able to calm my racing mind. I tap, I meditate, and I still wake up at exactly 12:45 a.m.
Finally, it hit me. That’s when I woke up on October 9 with the realization that something was wrong, the night I looked out the window and saw a wildfire racing toward our house.
Now my body knows that something bad happened at 12:45 a.m., and it wakes me up with a surge of cortisol.
I performed a key study on the effects of EFT tapping on stress hormones. Our research team randomized people into three groups and tested their cortisol levels before and after therapy. One group got regular talk therapy, one group rested, and the third group tapped. Anxiety and depression went down twice as much in the tapping group, and cortisol declined significantly.
So I know that these techniques work and I know what a cortisol surge looks like. I remember the story of a particular man treated in the Veterans Stress Project, which I founded. He’d endured a mortar attack at 4:45 a.m. on his first day of deployment in Vietnam in 1968. When he came in for treatment, more than 40 years later, he still often woke up at 4:45 a.m.
That’s a typical cortisol surge. Though it was adaptive at getting our ancestors out of danger in past epochs, when it keeps on repeating, it plays havoc with the biochemistry of today’s humans.
Since I’m waking up at 12:45 and staying awake despite my best efforts, I decide to make friends with the pattern. As I lie awake, I focus on being mindful of all the happiness in my life. The fact that I survived the fire. That I have a loving wife, successful children, and a magnificent community. That I have deeply meaningful work that contributes to the healing of thousands of people each year.
Exactly a month after the fire, to the day, I woke up at 1:45, an hour later than usual. And went back to sleep quickly. That meant my body was becoming convinced by my mind. It was no longer repeating the story that death is imminent unless we’re on full alert at 12:45. The same thing happened the following night.
That’s a positive change!
It’s important to love our bodies. So often when they don’t behave, by getting sick or developing patterns like insomnia, we want the problems to go away. We ignore them, deny them, suppress them, get mad at them, or medicate them.
If instead we can strive to understand them and accept our bodies just the way they are, we open the door to healing. Carl Rogers, the great client-centered therapist of the 20th century, called this the paradox of growth: We need to love ourselves just the way we are, with all our problems and limitations. When we do that, we start to change.
When your body knows it will be listened to, it can speak quietly. A little rumble here. A slight pain there. We hear the message and take care of its needs.
When I teach live workshops, I often work with people who’ve been ignoring their bodies or even hating their bodies for many years. They aren’t attuned to the body’s messages. They aren’t picking up those subtle signals.
When its soft communications are ignored, the body has to speak more loudly. The small pain might become arthritis. If ignored, it might become a full-fledged autoimmune disorder. So many people are at war with their bodies, trying to mute their messages with medication or addictive substances.
Growth begins with self-love. Healing begins with self-acceptance, even when circumstances seem unacceptable. Practicing self-love lowers our stress levels and opens our awareness to the potential of our lives. Through that window of possibility, the love, peace and beauty of the universe can shine.
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