Our Bodies, Our Emotional Selves
Written by: Anna Macgregor Robin, LCSW
Often our bodies know things aren’t quite right even before our brains do. Bodies are finely calibrated machines, refining and adjusting to adapt to the slightest change in circumstance. Why don’t we listen to them more carefully?
Notice tension in your body– your gut, neck, or shoulders– when things get stressful. That’s a form of communication. An ache in your lower back when the boss is routinely critical of your job performance, for instance? “Get the hell away from this woman!” Headaches? “You need a break! A long one!”
John Sarno’s book, Mind Over Back Pain, argues that most back pain comes from unaddressed stress. I think Sarno is onto something. Our backs sponge up all our emotions.
For me it’s not my back so much as my stomach: speaking in public gives me terrible anxiety and associated symptoms. I remember once getting seriously nauseated before going onstage– I was actually looking for a bucket before I had to go on. And the trembling! That was my body protecting me, screaming, “Stop! You idiot. Go out there and you’ll make an ass of yourself.”
Physical symptoms of emotional duress don’t have to be so dramatic. Our bodies store up what our nervous systems feed into them. Walking past a bully to school every day, a kid learns to be hyper vigilant– the nervous system learns to anticipate feeling dread.
A long, traffic-heavy commute forces us to use our primitive survival skills 2 times a day, 5 days a week: stay alert, look around, be safe— but better not get there late!
Toxic relationships can lead anticipating all kinds of negative feelings. If the relationship exists in our home or workplace, our day-to-day environments get flooded with negative feeling– creating chronic stress on nervous systems and bodies. Research tat demonstrates emotional pain really can lead directly to heart damage– broken hearts.
Trauma, family dysfunction, stress– big problems like these can’t be fixed in a moment(sound of a finger snap). It can take a long time to unearth and face down problems like trauma history, relationship dysfunction, anxiety disorders. But the body is always ready to receive caring treatment: Exercise. Massage. Exchanging a smile. Eating well. Resting with a good book– these are small, achievable actions with the power to make us feel just a little bit better, increasing our chance of eventually feeling a lot better.
The day I had to go onstage in front of strangers, my body was talking. I decided to listen and respond: “Body, I have to do this. Here’s a deep breath. And another. You calm down– I can do this, we will be ok,” and with that, I went onstage and didn’t throw up. So what if my hands were shaking.