Welcoming The Body Into Psychotherapy
Many years ago, I had an opportunity to travel to the magical little country of Belize in Central America. After checking a map to find out where it was, I became excited to finally use my newly minted master’s degree in public health for the first time. It was a three-month medical mission. I would be joining a team of teachers from the southern U.S. to work alongside village healthcare workers in combating resurgent malaria in the northern rural part of the country.
It was a dream come true. Upon returning to Canada, all I wanted to do was find work back in this country and return to the people I’d fallen in love with. Ironically, it was the relaxed, laidback lifestyle and gentle, open, hospitable people that had captured my heart and imagination. But I had to learn Spanish.
While supervising a small laboratory in a bustling hospital, I set myself to learning Spanish. Despite this stressful job, supervising a small staff, introducing new procedures, and learning to cope with hospital politics, I attacked the language challenge with a vengeance. Burning the candle at both ends, I arose early before work, listened to a Spanish course on tape, memorized vocabulary, and worked hard each day. It seemed like a great idea.
Finally, the body said "Enough!" One morning I became so exhausted that I fell to the floor of the lab and had to be taken to emergency and hospitalized (I had also picked up a low-level chronic intestinal infection while travelling elsewhere – which I disregarded).
How did I get so out of touch with my body? What impact did driving myself so hard have on my body, mind, and spirit? What were the hard lessons I had to learn in order to live well and be able to go the distance?
Unrecognized body-mind-spirit conflicts can creep up on us unawares from different sources: our workplaces, difficult family relationships, major life changes, or even home renovations! Unresolved, out-of-control stress has predictable impacts on the whole of our lives—physical, mental, spiritual, and social.
Here are just a few examples of the body-mind-spirit effects of unchecked stress (much of this information is thanks to the Mayo Clinic website):
Headache, anxiety, overeating or undereating;
Muscle tension or pain, restlessness, angry outbursts;
Chest pain, lack of motivation or focus, drug or alcohol misuse;
Fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, disrupted troubled relationships;
Change in sex drive, irritability or anger, social withdrawal;
Stomach upset, sadness or depression, exercising less often;
Sleep problems, irritability, forgetfulness;
Ultimately excessive stress can lead to many health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Recently research and popular books highlight the body-mind connection between physical health issues and stress. For example, I was curious to check out a book written by a popular author, Gabor Maté, M.D.: When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. Maté is a Hungarian-Canadian physician with a background in family practice and a special interest in childhood development, trauma, and potential lifelong impacts on physical and mental health including autoimmune disease, cancer, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and addictions.
In his book, Maté aims to bring together some findings of modern science with the intuitions of age-old wisdom, reuniting "what we know with our whole being and what our thinking mind accepts as truth." Maté writes:
My…purpose [in writing this book] was to hold up a mirror to our stress-driven society so that we may recognize how, in myriad unconscious ways, we help generate the illnesses that plague us. - Gabor Maté, When The Body Says No.
Maté would be the first to explain, however, that his book isn’t about blaming the victim for "their cancer"! He acknowledges the multi-factorial causes of our many "dis-eases", some of which we have some control over, many of which we don’t. Root causes of physical illnesses can include genetics, environment, lifestyle, personality and temperament, and many other factors.
So, if we acknowledge that consideration of the body, mind, and spirit are all essential in the pursuit of wellness, how may we welcome the body, in particular, into psychotherapy?
Here are some general strategies that I’ve found helpful in my own healing journey of finding peace for the body—and the mind—in this often troubled world.
Accept the body
For some of us, one of the most difficult challenges in welcoming the body into psychotherapy can be accepting who we are physically and learning to be compassionate and kind toward our embodied selves. It’s not uncommon to get into a kind of civil war between the mind and the body. The mind may have a vision for the body which the body does not share and cannot agree with—such as my experience with burnout as I described above.
Sometimes we may experience a more violent body-mind-spirit conflict if we use toxic recreational drugs or drink too much alcohol, possibly to self-medicate, de-stress, enjoy a distraction, or experiment.
Sometimes we end up in occupations that are simply too stressful for our level of physical and emotional stamina and strength. Other times our occupations may not be challenging enough and we may feel like it’s a dead end with no future. Finding the right thing for you when you’re in your 20s, making a career change in the mid-stream of life, or letting go of an occupation later in life that isn’t a good fit for you can be demanding and uncertain, even scary and heart-breaking. But over the long term, making this critical change can be freeing and very rewarding.
We live in a fast-paced, competitive culture where the norm seems to be comparing ourselves to others, often physically, and finding either we fall short or think we’re better off than someone else. Learning to be okay in your own skin in the here and now, yet gently making small lifestyle changes to help and nurture our bodies, is a step-by-step, daily process. It’s about accepting our physical strengths and limitations in order to become the persons we were meant to be. And to simply relax and enjoy our lives.
Calm the body
Many of us are growing in awareness that feeling physically tense can increase our psychological tension and vice versa. Conversely, relaxing our bodies can help relieve psychological stress. Calming our minds can help us physically relax and release tension in our bodies. It’s all connected.
Finding sustainable, enjoyable, "self-soothing" strategies can save your life! Dr. Diane Poole Heller, a therapist and practitioner in the field of attachment theory and trauma resolution, gives three quick tips to calm the nervous system:
The practice of deep and relaxed breathing works quickly to lower stress and increase our "window of tolerance".
Speaking a calming word or phrase to ourselves, such as "Relax!", can bring immediate relief.
Getting a massage or enjoying a warm bath is a great way to calm the nervous system.
One practice I’ve found particularly helpful to calm the body (and the mind) is the ancient Chinese art of Tai Chi. Although Tai Chi originated in China as one of the martial arts, the type of Tai Chi I practice grew out of the Taoist philosophy of tranquillity and harmony. This form of Tai Chi is for everyone.
It was introduced to Canada by Mr. Moy Lin Shin, a Taoist monk who promoted the principle of all cultures and religions moving together in harmony.
Tai Chi combines elements of a workout, meditation, and dance. It takes regular practice with instruction over a period of time to learn the movements—but it pays big dividends over the long run. My experience is that Tai Chi is gentle yet powerful in helping people of all ages get out of an anxious, stressed mind and listen to, connect with, and relax the body in a remarkable way. I highly recommend it!
Move the body
From time to time, we may need a little motivation to get moving and make physical activity a regular part of our lives. To this end, I’ve come across a book by a health psychologist and Stanford College educator, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, entitled: The Joy of Movement: How exercise helps us find happiness, hope, connection, and courage. It’s a good read.
In her latest book, McGonigal "explores how physical exercise can be a powerful antidote to the modern epidemics of depression, anxiety, and loneliness." At heart, McGonigal is an educator and storyteller. She weaves life stories of people who have found a sense of community through walking, running, swimming, dancing, or weightlifting (and a whole lot more) with insights from neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, biology, and more.
McGonigal doesn’t just tell us we should exercise, she shows us how we can fall in love with movement. We can get to the place where if we don’t move in a fun intentional way, frequently, something important is missing in our lives whereby we can find health and wholeness for our entire body, mind, and spirit.
Feed the body well
Unsurprisingly, there’s a rapidly expanding medical speciality known as nutritional psychiatry which is contributing science-based knowledge connecting brain function and the food we eat; sometimes known as the food-mood connection.
It makes sense that what we put in our mouths ends up in our brains. Our brains are working hard for us 24/7. Yet how much attention are we paying to what we’re feeding them?
Rather than cycling through conventional diets of all sorts over our lifetimes (these diets seem to wax and wane according to the latest fad), I’m a proponent of adopting a kind of general lifestyle way of eating—and letting the body naturally find its healthiest weight and way of being.
This approach means eating a diet high in vegetables, some fruit, unprocessed whole grains, nuts/seeds/lentils/beans, and fish and seafood. It means eating only modest amounts of lean meats and some dairy (unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan, of course). In particular, it’s about avoiding processed and refined foods and added sugars. It’s helpful to include some fermented foods (such as kimchi, sauerkraut, or plain Greek yoghurt) for the sake of introducing natural probiotics into our bodies.
Much more could be said! But these are some introductory thoughts and practices on welcoming the body into psychotherapy. Best wishes on your healing journey.
Joy Gillet, BSc, MPH, RCC, is passionate about helping clients experience well-being in their body, mind, and soul. She is a compassionate counsellor who meets with individuals and couples. Read more about Joy here.