Learning the Language of the Body

When you think of mental health, what do you think of? Many associate mental health with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But do you know that your mental health can have a significant impact on your physical health? While some of the commonly listed symptoms of depression and anxiety include sensations of fatigue and changes to sleep or appetite, your body can be affected far beyond these typical physical symptoms. The mind and body connection is an important one to make, and your body has it’s own “language” to attempt to express emotional pain related to current stressors and histories of trauma.

While any stressful event has the potential to impact your body, adverse childhood experiences and a history of trauma are some of the biggest predictors of physical health problems.  Adverse childhood experiences and trauma can include: physical / sexual/ emotional abuse, divorce, death, war, threats of violence, and many more. Trauma is a deeply disturbing, distressing event often involving a sense of fear, horror, and helplessness. These experiences can impact each person differently; what is important is how an event has affected YOU.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, is a well-known expert in trauma and the body who noted the following:

Once trauma has been experienced, your energy is focused on suppressing the inner chaos that is often felt. Attempts to control or bury overwhelming physiological and emotional sensations can result in a range of physical symptoms, provided a doctor has concluded there is no underlying medical condition first. Some conditions include:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Chronic back and neck pain
  • Migraines
  • Digestive problems
  • Spastic colon / irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Some forms of asthma

When trauma is experienced, your body sounds off the alarm system and shuts down the ability to think rationally and prepares to either run, hide, fight, or freeze. While most of the time, our bodies can return to normal, trauma can disrupt this regulation process and keep these alarms turned on. The brain can become stuck and continue to release stress chemicals and send danger signals to the body, when in reality the actual threat has passed. This ongoing stress in the body can wreak havoc on you physically!

The body attempts to communicate and warn us when help is needed. The consequences of ignoring your body’s warning signs can lead to feeling out of touch with your senses and gut reactions, and can leave you feeling numb and disconnected. This can impact your sense of self, your relationships, and important danger signals. While medication can be helpful to temporarily relieve the physical discomfort, it can prevent you from understanding the underlying cause.

People never get better without knowing what they know and feeling what they feel (Van Der Kolk, 2014). Therapy can help you pay attention to your sensations, and build awareness to what your body might be trying to say with curiosity and compassion.  Some ways to build this skill include mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, and finding ways to help you engage your body! There is also a great power in being able to name and communicate your experiences.  Your body can contain much wisdom and information, but only if you are willing to listen.