What does “psychosomatic” mean, anyway? It’s obvious, of course: You may think you’ve got a physical problem, but really, it’s all in your head.
Really? Well, not so fast.
Psychosomatic medicine has a long (and troubled) history. Its intent has really been to help us get away from the dualism of “either it’s in your head or it’s in your body.”
When I wrote, about 6 months ago, “the body knows,” I was not saying that unacknowledged anger at your mother causes pancreatic cancer. Further, I was not saying that if there aren’t obvious physical explanations for your physical symptoms, then it’s “just” mental.
Here is what I’d like to suggest: When we don’t pay attention to—and address—the stresses in our lives, it’s likely that bodily cues will show up. And these cues will say: Something is not right and it should be addressed.
To illustrate my point, I wrote about three very real people (although I disguised some aspects to protect their privacy): Joan, Jack, and Julie. And I said I’d let you know, six months later, how they were doing, at “listening” to what their bodies were telling them.
Herewith, my report:
Remember Joan? A mid-40s competitive runner with a long history of training hard but not smart.
What did that look like? She followed a rigid training schedule focused on speed and time. More speed. Less time. Dislike of her less than perfect (that is, human) body, with constant attention to how little she could eat to get away with the amount of exercise she subjected herself to. Discounting the impact of other aspects of her life on her well-being, such as chronic injury, work demands, and her family’s needs.
She was thin, driven, and unhappy.
Her brittleness manifested itself physically during a race, when one of her leg bones fractured. This absolute halt to her running gave her the time to re-assess many aspects of her life.
It wasn’t the first time she’d been injured and had to stop for a while. But this time, she was ready to begin making some changes. Some of what she worked on:
Allowing herself some compassion for the predicament she was in.
Learning to focus on what is happening in the present, rather than trying to stave off disasters that she anticipates in the future.
Speaking with a nutritionist who helped her regulate her food intake.
Using the time that she and I spent talking, to vent, to complain, to rage—and then to pull herself together and pay attention to the next small steps.
And falling in love—much to her surprise—with yoga. With the stretches. With the deep breathing. With the attention to the current experience. With an increased awareness of her body: its capacities and its limits.
Paying attention to body signals rather than trying to block them out.
Now, Joan is running again—carefully. She still doesn’t trust herself to be reasonable with herself when it comes to running, so she’s found a coach who is totally aware of her history, who helps her pace herself, and who sets expectations while continually encouraging her to modify the plan to suit her current circumstances.
Will she compete again? Maybe. Maybe a different distance. Or maybe she’ll use that energy and drive to develop expertise in a different sport or activity. Right now, competing is not her goal. She’s focused on not injuring herself.
Her 9 year old son tells her she’s much more fun to be around.
Jack, also in his 40s, is a successful stock broker whose chronic IBS [irritable bowel syndrome]—and the ways in which stress exacerbates it—nudged him into taking action at his company. He made clear what he needed in the way of assistance. And, though it took some months, the company responded, providing some junior staff and clerical help. Training these people has been challenging, but worth it in the end. His job is still highly demanding—it’s just that it’s now possible to do it in 10 hour days, rather than 14.
Has this resolved the IBS? Well, no. Once established, IBS is a chronic condition. The stress-related flare-ups occur less frequently, even though they feel as bad and last as long as before. Jack will still need to do some more work on long-standing patterns of thoughts and beliefs, but advocating for himself this time was an enormous first step.
Julie is the architectural consultant in her late 60s who was ending each week so exhausted that she would get cold symptoms. Her weekends were spent recovering…only to have the same pattern repeat.
Mentally, she’s surveyed the various demands that, professionally, she was subjecting herself to. Much as she relished each of them individually, cumulatively they were too much. She’s whittled away at them, taking on fewer new projects, limiting her presentations. Tempting as each might be, she’s weighing the requests against her willingness to experience her sense of pressure and lack of time. In the past, she had enjoyed that level of demand. Now, when she experiences it, it feels uncomfortable. Instead, she’s begun to notice the moments of non-pressure and how exhilarating they now feel. She’s scheduled in some truly enjoyable “demands”: a photography course, a bi-weekly massage.
Despite these changes, Julie is aware that she needs to stay vigilant. She needs to guard against slippage; it’s so easy to fall back into old patterns. She’s now got wonderful reinforcement to sustain these changes, though: Those weekly tell-tale symptoms of an impending cold have vanished.
Each of these people is learning to make use of body signals to help them stay well. It’s “psychosomatic” with a different twist: Joan looks to her body to gauge whether she’s pushing too much and courting injury. Jack likes the time and space when he’s symptom-free. And Julie has reclaimed her weekends.
Where do you notice this mind-body connection in your life? If you would like to be in contact with me, regarding this issue or some other aspect of performance psychology, feel free to send me a note through my website, www.theperformingedge.com