The Mind-Body Connection is More than you Think
Mandy Leonards, MSW, LCSW
I've been thinking a lot lately about the mind-body connection. More than usual. Those that know me well know that my main hobby and interest is triathlon. I want to preface this with the fact that as a child, I was not athletic. If fact, I was always picked last in gym class, and despite my desire to
make it on sports teams, it was not easy for me. I had a short stint in middle school track in 8th grade, and another short stint in little league softball. I didn't even know club sports existed back then. I was generally an awkward, painfully shy and chubby kid.
As I entered college and my own relationship with food and my body changed and entered a healthier realm, my passion and joy for fitness began. I started running. At first it was slow. I remember the first time I went for a run, I couldn't run 2 blocks. My now husband, who was my boyfriend at the time - walked next to me as I jogged. But I kept at it. A year later, I had lost 30 pounds and ran my first half marathon in about 2.5 hours. A passion was unleashed.
When I was 21, I got certified as a personal trainer, was teaching fitness classes and couldn't get enough. Not only did I change on the outside, but I most certainly changed on the INSIDE. 18 years later, people that meet me today have no idea that I was never the athlete that I am now. As I have grown as a human, as an athlete, and as a therapist, one thing I have put in my tool box for sure -- is this mind body connection. If had just lost weight and not found the "thing" that gave me an outlet, helped me process things and feelings, would I have felt better on the inside too? Back then I wouldn't have thought much of it ... but now, at 38 years old and a trained trauma therapist I can tell you that without a doubt-- it would not have.
The body remembers stuff our brain doesn't. When something bad happens to us, we often block it out, or it becomes a fuzzy memory. Sometimes even, things happen to us when we are babies, before our brains can remember such things - and yet our body will remember this event. Something will trigger us -- a voice, a food item, a smell, a sound. And BOOM we feel anxious, shameful, embarrassed .... and we are like WHAT IS HAPPENING? This is called a trauma response. I have clients coming to me all the time not understanding why they can't just "get over it". This is why. Your body needs to process. Your brain needs to know it is safe, in the present, and be able to feel those feelings for the first time.
This is ultimately what got be interested in EMDR as a modality in trauma therapy - and I have found it to be so incredible not only with PTSD, but with Eating Disorders, performance enhancement in athletes, anxiety and other addictions; why? Think about it. The unhealthy coping skills that you develop are because your brain wants you to find something familiar, comforting. It may even lead you to go back towards dysfunctional family patterns and behaviors because it feels FAMILIAR to the part of your brain that remembers that....even though it was not healthy. It may not make sense to the outside world -- but it sure makes sense to your brain.
You can break this. You have to remember that we cannot just flip a switch to fix anything. Just like going to the gym, mindfulness exercise and healthier coping skills take time to learn and practice OVER AND OVER AND OVER again. You might feel worse before you feel better -- because it is not familiar. But the mind-body connection is there and your brain will thank you. Just like your body does when you keep giving it healthier habits.
So the point of this blog entry is to simply remind you all that it is not black in white in therapy -- in fitness - in life. It is all connected. You can treat one without treating the other.
"Change begins when we learn to "own" our emotional brains." - Bessel Van Der Kolk