What the body knows before the mind

The body understands first.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here.

Last fall, I was feeling more anxious than ever. (And I have an anxiety disorder!) Despite the fact that I’ve been on meds for years, go to therapy, and try to do a lot of self-care practices like working out, meditation and journaling, this latest round of anxiety had descended like a cloud I couldn’t shake. I talked about it constantly in therapy; wound it in and out of my mind; poked at its origins on my walks to work; wrote about it, questioning, in my journal. Why, I wondered, could I not dig into what this anxiety meant? Where it came from? Why it was happening?!?

Then in October, I went for a quick trip to Sedona, Arizona. I went on hikes. I got reiki massage. I got a regular massage. I stopped trying to intellectualize or understand my anxiety. I treated my body instead, and moved my limbs on long hikes through the glowing red landscape. I meditated on a cliff. I let healers treat my body, not my mind. And ultimately, by the time I came back to D.C. a few days later, the anxiety had lifted.

I realized then that what I had been experiencing was an anxiety I couldn’t talk, intellectualize, or even understand my way out of. It was an anxiety that was felt — and ultimately released by — my body.

It was at that moment, and through a variety of reading I’ve been assigned for a coaching course I’m taking (I’ll be certified as a personal coach come October, FYI!), that I became aware of and interested in what treating the body can do for us, and in somatic — or body-centered — practices. Somatic therapy moves beyond talk therapy to include the felt experience of a person in their body as a primary means of understanding what’s going on in their mind. It’s an integrated approach of the body, mind and soul viewed as a functional whole.

The more I read about somatic practices and the body, the more I understood that through my entire life, I’ve primarily tried to intellectually understand and process everything I was doing, everything I was going through… everything I was.

In fact, I have rarely used my body for anything other than something to work out as hard as I could, or to measure its appearance by arbitrary and cruel standards.

So I decided to try feeling in my body, and with my body, instead of just my mind. And I today, I’m recommending you do the same.

What does that mean? Well, let’s take a look. Is there something you are currently struggling with? Perhaps you have anxiety like I do. Meds and talk therapy are great, as are oft-recommended-by-the-Sunday-Soother practices like meditation and journaling.

But what I found to also be a powerful addition to dealing with my anxiety is a body grounding practice.

Grounding is about reassuring your body that it is secure, that is belongs where it is, that you are connected to, literally, the ground, and that your mind isn’t spinning off into a spiral of worry and disconnect.

This can be as simple as a walk through the woods — without your phone — where you really try to feel each step of your feet. A series of balancing yoga poses can be good, such as this one. Breathwork can be powerful for grounding — simply breathing in a guided way (this article will give you some guidance on three-part breath, or you can try the 4–7–8 breathing technique). At its most basic, you can practice feeling grounded simply by sitting in a chair, with both feet on the ground, spine straight, and breathing slowly. You may even say out loud, “I belong here. I am safe here.”

The idea is that the mind is trying to whir away up into the sky with anxiety; you bring it back to earth through the grounding presence of the body.

What else? How could you apply this way of using your body in your own life? Well, for me, I had a goal of bringing more joy and silliness in my life so I did something I didn’t think I would EVER do: I started taking a hip-hop cardio dance class.

This was a big deal for me. I am a “bad” dancer. I do not like to do things I am not good at. I fear embarrassment.

But I also knew that learning to move in a joyful and fun way would be good for me, and that additionally taking a risk to be vulnerable in a way with my body and teaching my body a brand-new thing would also be great for me. And it has been. I love that damn class. I can now even sort of twerk… sort of.

Other things?

  • If you want more flexibility in your life or your ways of thinking, try yoga or stretching.
  • More focus? Tai chi, perhaps.
  • Want to practice expressing your voice and being heard? Join a chorus or take singing lessons.
  • Trying to invite more love into your life, and to give it? Try a series of heart openers.
  • Want to access more vulnerability in your life, but aren’t quite there to do it mentally/emotionally? Try something like I did, taking a new workout class where you are afraid of being exposed or trying something new in front of other people.

If you’re interested in learning more about the body and its effect on the mind (and vice versa) here are some resources I’ve read recently (fair warning, they are all really dense and sort of textbook-y). They really get into the impact of trauma (both big T Trauma and little t trauma) on the body, and the way it’s stored in the nervous system or shows up in muscle development, and offer a variety of exercises and approaches folks can take.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma: “”Trauma is a fact of life. Veterans and their families deal with the painful aftermath of combat; one in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. He explores innovative treatments — from neurofeedback and meditation to sports, drama, and yoga — that offer new paths to recovery by activating the brain’s natural neuroplasticity.”

Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System As a Path to the Self: [PS from Catherine — you don’t have to buy into the chakra system to find relevance in this book and what it talks about, it’s very heavy on western psychology as well] — “Anodea Judith, a healer, elucidates the chakra system and how it shapes and is shaped by human behavior. The seven chakras, or human biocomputer, are located at various levels of our bodies. The chakras start with survival (at the base of the spine), followed by sexuality (lower back), power (solar plexus), love (heart area), communication (throat), intuition (brow), and cognition (crown). Giving an understanding of the chakras and their corresponding psychological character, Judith then invites the reader to explore multidimensional healing processes to bring the chakras into balance.”

Dance Therapy and Depth Psychology: The Moving Imagination: “Dance/movement as active imagination was originated by Jung in 1916. Developed in the 1960s by dance therapy pioneer Mary Whitehouse, it is today both an approach to dance therapy as well as a form of active imagination in analysis. In her delightful book Joan Chodorow provides an introduction to the origins, theory and practice of dance/movement as active imagination. Beginning with her own story the author shows how dance/ movement is of value to psychotherapy. Finally in discussing the use of dance/movement as active imagination in practice, the movement themes that emerge and the non-verbal expressive aspects of the therapeutic relationship are described.”

Happy reading, and happy moving.