The popular book on women’s reproductive health, Our Bodies, Ourselves, was published quietly in 1971 and quickly became a best seller, claiming no fewer than 9 domestic and 26 foreign editions. The book sought to encourage women to get in touch with the sexual and reproductive parts of themselves; parts that in that era, and perhaps still now, are, as the book points out, often more unfamiliar to women than other parts of themselves.
The important message of this book came to my mind recently because it seems to me to raise some interesting questions about our relationships to our bodies – and when I say “our,” I speak of men and women both. Let me start with the possibly odd-sounding suggestion that our bodies are not ourselves. True, legally speaking, if you commit a crime they will take a mug shot of you. That photo is intended to identify you, the person who committed the crime, and so from a legal standpoint we and our bodies are one. On the other hand, if you think about the point of the book: that we can go through life not knowing about our own basic feelings and biologies, then perhaps we can also say that “we” – let’s for the sake of simplicity call this entity our minds – our minds are in a constant state of relationship with our bodies. We learn about them, we discover them, we enjoy them when they give us pleasure, and we lament them when they give us pain. It is also true that our minds are in a special kind of relationship with our bodies, different than the kind of relationship we have with other people – precisely because our bodies are always there. But still, just because our minds and our bodies are not one and the same, it is also possible for us to have quite complicated relationships with them.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean. When our bodies give us pain, we actually have a range of emotions and options with which we can react. We can tense up, angry that the pain is there. This often leads to more tension and therefore more pain. Or we can relax and accept, and the pain becomes more tolerable. We can make decisions about the pain: how do we know to enjoy the pain of a strenuous workout, but not the pain of a toothache? It turns out these are not simple decisions. For some people the idea of pain from a workout can be just as painful as a toothache and may be part of why it is so hard for many of us to start an exercise routine. That is also an example of our mind making a decision or a judgment about the feelings our bodies are giving us.
Now what happens when our bodies are sick? Let’s use for our example just an everyday cold. For some people that can be quite stressful, others take it in stride. What’s the difference? Maybe just in personality type, but maybe also in the difference between someone who has sick days they can enjoy (and the kind of job where taking them is minimally intrusive), while for someone else it may mean lost wages and complicated child care arrangements. In both cases what we often find is that the ways our bodies react to illness (or pain) is in part based on all of these thoughts and feelings which our minds have about what is going on with our bodies. Depending on what we think, the pain in our body can feel worse, the illness can feel more oppressive.
Most importantly, this means that our way to health, or at least improvement, is also affected by the thoughts and feelings our minds produce about the experiences of our bodies. The same kinds of injuries or illness conditions in two different people – or even in the same person under different circumstances, can have wildly different outcomes. One researcher found that back surgery done to relieve chronic lower back pain is predominantly unsuccessful for people with a history of abuse and trauma in their lives; while the exact same type of surgery is far more likely to eliminate pain in people without such a history.
Next time you are sick, or under stress, or even when you’re not, take heed of the messages your mind is having about your body. As it turns out, an important part of taking care of our bodies involves getting to know our minds, and most importantly, nourishing the relationship between them.
I am a clinical psychologist in private practice with offices in Chestnut Hill and Center City. I work with individuals and with couples, and I have a special interest in working with illness, depression, anxiety and chronic pain conditions. I can be reached at email@example.com or at (484) 534-8830.