Sometimes it’s easier to hurt physically than to hurt emotionally. Sometimes the low back pain, twisted knee or achy shoulder is less distressing than the emotions “behind” those symptoms.
Pain and Emotions
Here’s an example. I recently had a very intense therapy session in which I felt feelings from my childhood that I’d rather not feel. I hesitate to even write about them. Not long after this session, I developed a strange pain in my right low back. I imagined a tumor, a pulled muscle, I googled the Quadratus Lumborum muscle, conferred with my chiropractor brother, asked a colleague for a trade, thought about dying from cancer. Then I noticed that I felt emotionally numb. I wondered… when did I start feeling this back pain… and what was I feeling emotionally?.... As soon as I realized that I was avoiding my feelings, that the REAL issue was emotional pain, the physical pain started to subside. The less need I have to distract myself from the emotional pain, the less physical pain I manifest.
What did I really feel? (And this is a great question to ask yourself at any moment during the day.) I feel shame. Shame for not overcoming childhood pain. Shame for not loving all parts of myself, after all these years, shame for not standing up for myself with the therapist, and shame for feeling anger towards the therapist. In the past few days it became easier to feel the back pain than to feel the shame.
How can I heal that shame? Feel it. Share it. Know that I am not unique. Have compassion for myself. Don’t expect the shame to disappear; what we judge won’t budge. Maybe spend some time just acknowledging and feeling the shame. Comfort the part of me that feels ashamed.
Feel the Feelings
Our feelings can guide us. If we don’t feel them they may transform into depression, muscular tension, eating disorders, etc. Let’s listen, feel, and let go. Let’s prevent the headaches or heart palpitations or back pain; feel the feeling. Try this: notice an uncomfortable or tense area of your body. See if it’s associated with a thought or a feeling. Feel the feeling. Then, instead of jumping to a more “positive” thought or feeling, breath in that discomfort, that pain, that anxiety into your whole body! Breathe it in. Feel it. Then exhale it and let it go. Do that a few times and see what happens. Let it flow.
What happened to the term “psycho-somatic? For some reason it is no longer common parlance. What does the term mean? In popular usage, the term implied that the ailment referred to was “all in ‘your’ head.” The roots of the term are the Greek words psyche which means mind, and somato which means body; therefore a true translation would be mindbody. A psychosomatic disorder, for instance, can be described as “a disease which involves both mind and body.”1 I’m glad the term is not used in a derogatory way anymore, but I wonder why it’s rarely used at all. Perhaps we have retired the term because research has confirmed the mind/body connection.
Can an ailment be “all in your head?” Let’s think about it. Is there a part of the body that is not affected by our thoughts and feelings? Test anxiety may bring on sweaty palms. Chronic emotional stress can cause adrenal fatigue. Imagining hamburgers stimulates salivary glands. Depressed feelings can translate into slumped posture and fatigue. And researchers have discovered that even our DNA can be affected by emotions. “According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA.”2 So trauma, and the resulting emotions, can change molecules.
Does this have implications for psychotherapy? As a body-centered psychotherapist and integrative healer, I’d like to propose that the best psychotherapy is embodied psychotherapy. Since emotions can have physical expressions, and since our bodies dialogue with our psyches, it makes sense for client and psychotherapist to tune into the body. Client and therapist can better understand and heal if we notice sensations in our bodies. Tuning in to our bodies helps us to access information below the level of consciousness. In the words of Candice Pert, “...the deepest oldest messages are stored and must be accessed through the body. Your body is your unconscious mind, and you can't heal it by talk alone” 3 By tuning in to the tension in your shoulders, you may realize that you feel the “weight of the world” and need to delegate responsibilities. By noticing a subtle pain in your jaw you may take account of the repressed anger towards your spouse. Your neck muscles may be tight for fear you’ll “lose your head.” You may be weak in the knees, dizzy with love, or live with a “pain in the neck.” Your hip may hurt because you feel “out of joint.” The body speaks in telling symbols. It behooves us to listen.
We are psycho-somatic beings -- and to me that means it’s not all in our heads. It’s also in our hips and our necks and our backs and our shoulders....
3 Pert, C. B. (1997). Molecules of emotions. New York, NY: Scribner.