It's no accident that so many of the phrases we use to describe our state of mind make reference to parts of the body (or, ahem, certain bodily functions) to convey a feeling we are experiencing in any given situation. Pause for a moment and I bet you can come up with a few of your own. My point is that instinctively, people make a connection between their minds and their bodies.
Yet when mental health professionals, philosophers, or crunchy-granola New Age types talk about the “Mind-Body Connection,” it can sound sort of “out there.” Let’s bring this concept back down to earth in a way that you can use in a practical way in your daily life.
The Mind Can Deal in Fiction While the Body Tells the Truth
While we often lie to ourselves, the truth is that our bodies never lie. Our aches and pains, the way we move, in some cases even our physical ailments give us useful clues about whatever it is that's "stuck in our craw." Hey, there's another one! Train yourself to key in on those clues and you'll understand what's bothering you. Awareness is the first step in healing.
I've noticed in my practice that when a client starts saying "I don't know" as we search for the underlying reasons for their upset, that means it's time to ask the body. So we will switch from talking about what their mind is thinking to focusing on what their body is doing or feeling. You can practice the same strategy in vivo (That's therapist-speak for "in day-to-day life.")
Let Your Body Do the Talking
Here are some simple tips on using your body to solve the mystery of what is going on in your mind:
First, mentally scan your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Make note of which parts of the body are experiencing any kind of physical sensation. Sometimes it's subtle, so take your time. Do you detect pain anywhere? Is it dull or sharp? Is it constant or does it come in waves? Do you feel any sort of muscle tension? A sensation of emptiness, fluttering, constriction, areas of cold or hot?
Next, pay attention to any movements or changes in posture. Have you crossed your arms, placed your hand on your stomach or the top of your head, leaned this way or that, set your jaw or clenched your teeth? Are you experiencing any physical illness? (My mother-in-law suffers chronic urinary tract infections. Maybe her urethra is telling her that she's really pissed off. Lol.)
Another useful observation is to notice any movements: jiggling your leg, tapping your toes, swallowing hard, cracking your knuckles, rubbing your neck or your lower back? (One client I worked with used to forcibly pat himself on the head when we entered an emotional danger zone. Turns out his father used to rap him on the head with a rolled up newspaper and chastise him for being "stupid.")
Consider your breathing as well. Is it shallow or ragged? Is the in-breath shorter than the out-breath, or vice versa? Maybe you're hyperventilating. Or holding your breath without realizing it.
Deciphering Your Body's Messages
The next step is interpreting what you've noted. The tricky part here is keeping your mind out of the process. Be very literal. You don't need to create a story here, such as, "I'm putting my hand on my heart because my partner just threatened divorce and that's breaking my heart." (Hint: If you start using the word "because," that's a signal that your mind has hijacked the process. If this happens, simply edit out whatever came after the "because." ) While the "because" may be be accurate, there is an underlying reason that goes much deeper. Usually, the body is sending us a message about a deep-seated mistaken belief you might have about yourself -- a belief that formed years ago that's coming up to be challenged -- one that no longer serves you. That's a sign that you're ready to trade-in that old belief for one that's really true about you. By the way, these limiting beliefs are reinforced over time and become subconscious. It may be helpful to know that each of us is wired to look for confirming evidence, and to overlook evidence to the contrary. Avoid playing the self-blame game. You'll never win that one.
Instead of choosing your thinking mind do the work, stay with the body, which as I said before never lies or tells stories in a misguided attempt to make sense of your confusion. In other words, give the body part or the sensation of discomfort a "voice" of its own. Really chunk it down. It helps keep you in your body if you allow the voice to start each response with "I feel . . ."
Let's look at the hand-on-the-heart example: This means asking the heart (instead of the "self") "What are you feeling right now?" Done correctly, you will find that the heart answers in terms of physical sensations. "I feel empty." Go with it. Ask the heart to tell more about that empty feeling. "I feel like there's nothing inside." Keep going. "This emptiness hurts."
Eventually your heart will start repeating the same phrases to describe what it is feeling. That's when you know you've gotten to the rock bottom, self-sabotaging truth about the subconscious beliefs about your self. It is this Mistaken Truth that has been driving the feelings and beliefs that have been keeping you from living the life you are meant to live. Typically, those behaviors are counter-productive.
Once the heart has finished "speaking", that's your cue to notice any other bodily sensations. When I do this exercise with clients, often they will notice the sensation has changed, or even shifted to another part of the body altogether. If this happens, repeat the process, dialoguing with the new sensation or body part so that you will receive its messages as well.
Identifying the Functions and Symbols
Now it's time to bring the mind back into the equation. Consider the function that body part plays in your physical self. Going back to the talking heart example, you would note the biological purpose that the heart serves. Also consider what the concept "heart" symbolizes to you and you only. That's because your definition might be very different from how people in general -- or influential figures in your life -- interpret the symbol. Repeat this step with any other sensations you have noticed.
Finding the Pattern of False Beliefs
For example, the physical function of the heart is to keep the blood moving, which is what nourishes all parts of us with life-sustaining oxygen. Metaphorically, "heart" can symbolize "love," "compassion," "determination" or something else altogether. Now ask yourself how that function or symbol applies to the situation that triggered the bodily sensations. Let's say in this case, to you the concept "heart" represents "love." What's the connection between "love," "emptiness" and "hurt" in your experience? When was one of the first times you felt this same physical sensation? Go back as early as you can remember. If the first situation that comes to you is from your adult life, that's okay. Give yourself permission to go back further, then wait. Don't try. Quiet the mind. Closing the eyes and taking a few deep relaxation breaths helps. It will come. You might see a scene as if it's projected on a movie screen or a photograph -- real or imagined. Or maybe it comes in the form of a symbol or a phrase or even a color. It doesn't have to make sense. All will be revealed at a pace your subconscious knows is right for you.
Solving the Puzzle
Once you've gotten this far, you can start to put it together. What did you begin to believe about yourself in that earlier experience? And how did you begin to behave in response to that belief? When the answers to those questions are clear, you will have put your finger on one of your core issues. Back to the hand-on-the-heart scenario: The limiting belief might have been "I am unlovable." And the behavior could be something like emotional eating to fill the emptiness.
The Choice Point
The question now is, do you want to hold on to that belief? Challenge it. Look for evidence to the contrary. If you've distracted yourself from those painful feelings of defining yourself as unlovable each time you perceived rejection in your life, you've never given your true self the chance to consider what is truly true about you. You've been too busy contemplating the bottom of that carton of Ben & Jerry's. The eating would be the self sabotaging behavior you've chosen in order to avoid coping with the pain of emptiness. The hand was covering your heart to protect it. Yet what you may have forgotten (or never known in the first place) is that while protecting your heart keeps it from experiencing even the possibility of rejection, it also has robbed it of the chance to nourish yourself and others with love that flows in and out, just as blood flows through our veins and enlivens us.. Now the question is, do I still want to behave this way?
If the answers to both of those questions is a resounding "No!" you're ready to change. Hopefully you will have discovered that you are inherently lovable, despite the messages you may have received from important people in your life, or from circumstances or situations in your environment. Likewise you will realize that there are other more effective ways of coping than hiding inside a bag of Doritos.
Make Change for the Better
Make a list of healthy ways to cope. Using the messages you've received as as a guide, that might mean taking the risk of sharing what's in that heart of yours with the people who mean most to you. Yes, it would be a risk. At the same time, it carries with it the best opportunity to connect in a way that fills the emptiness in your heart, instead of your stomach. And just as the heart muscle nourishes all parts of the physical body, you will have received the message that love, not food, is your heart's true desire.
If you get stuck in the process, or draw a blank on what healthy new beliefs or behaviors might be, consider collaborating with a professional counselor. We are trained to help you get to the heart of the matter.
Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Weston, Florida, where she counsels individuals and couples, teens+parents+adults. Special areas of interest include anxiety, depression, relationships, grief and loss, teen issues and parent coaching.