During my doctoral research, I read a great deal about the powerful effect of writing on healing, especially following trauma. It’s obvious that the conscious mind remembers the details of events, but what is more subtle and less talked about is what the body actually remembers or stores from our life experiences. Most researchers agree that there is a significant mind-body connection, and some people go so far as to say that what the mind forgets, the body remembers.
The fact is, the body speaks all the time, but we might not always hear its messages. Learning to listen to one’s body takes practice. As someone who has endured two bouts of cancer, I have now learned how to truly listen to my body to understand where its messages might be coming from. The body really does have a voice, but it just speaks a language that we may not be used to hearing.
My podiatrist reminded me of this fact the other day when I saw him about a pain in my foot. He said that my pain has something to do with some soft tissue damage. I asked him I could still go hiking or do lunges at the gym, and I loved his response.
“Do whatever you want. Listen to your body. When it hurts, stop doing what you’re doing,” he said.
“You mean I shouldn’t push through the pain?”
“Why would you want to do that?” he inquired.
When I stopped to think about it, I realized that while my neck used to house my emotional stress, lately it seems as if my feet have been holding on to that pain. I acknowledged that I’m currently dealing with a difficult mother (who for years has had very deformed and painful feet) who has just recently transitioned to an assisted-living facility. Having pain in both feet could possibly be my body remembering that she had foot pain her entire life.
In a similar vein, a few years back I read an article about a father who woke up every year on June 2 feeling very “off,” always experiencing stomachaches and a foggy head. It took him a while to detect the pattern, but he finally realized that June 2 was the anniversary of his father’s cancer diagnosis. His brain had let go of the memories and sadness of that day, but his body had not released them. Sometimes these and other repressed memories are held in certain parts of the body, and studies have shown that they might not surface until adulthood.
In The Emotional Life of Your Brain, the book Richard Davidson co-authors with Sharon Begley, he says that our mind is “embodied in the sense that it exists within the body” (p. 136). More specifically, the brain weighs about three pounds and communicates in two directions. In other words, our state of mind affects our body, and the state of our body affects our mind. Thus, our minds are dependent on brain cells to work, and those brain cells communicate with the cells in the body. The body gets instructions from the brain, and these instructions are what we call our total consciousness. Both the body and mind function together and are interdependent.
A strong mind-body connection extending back to childhood is explained with studies that have shown how early stressful experiences can impact proper immune-system function in adults. Researcher Madelon Visintainer conducted lab studies several decades ago that found a strong link between a sense of helplessness and the development of cancer in adulthood. Her research found that helplessness is viewed by the body as an inability to resist the development of cancer. Laboratory animals who could escape or combat feelings of helplessness were able to fight the invasion of cancer. Fascinating results!
This further illustrates that psychological events can affect wellness, how the body heals, and the types of diseases people are predisposed to. Studies have shown that certain diseases are linked to certain personality types. For example, mononucleosis has been linked to those who experience stress in school, and herpes is often equated with loneliness. Similarly, cancer survival has been linked to having a positive mood, hope, and social support, and being tough minded with a will to live correlates to AIDS survival.
Dr. Bernie Siegel has long advocated not only the mind-body connection, but the idea that you can heal if you love yourself and think positive thoughts. His book Love, Medicine & Miracles offers numerous techniques to do so, such as relaxation and guided-visualization techniques. The idea is that training the mind can increase vitality and promote wellness.
We should always remember that our minds and our souls dictate our mental and physical well-being . . . whether we wish to admit it or not.
Davidson, R. J. & S. Begley. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.
Siegel, B. (1986). Love, Medicine & Miracles. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Visintainer, M., JR. Volpicelli, ME Seligman. (1982). “Tumor rejection in rats after inescapable or escapable shock.” Science. April 23. p. 437–9.