Chronic illness: Our bodies and us
As someone with chronic illness, I have a love/hate relationship with my body, and it has taken me (and still does take me) a lot of work to accept my body. It can be easy to blame our bodies for holding us back, to feel like they are failing us, and we can put ourselves down over how we look or how our bodies are feeling. However, while those feelings are valid and can have their place, it is good to reframe our thoughts to gratitude by remembering that our bodies have carried us through everything up until this point.
Our bodies are so important to take note of as they hold our emotions, feelings, and trauma for us even when we haven't necessarily processed them cognitively. We can find that all these things can manifest in different physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, stomach pain, global pain, tense muscles etc. It can be difficult to know whether the symptom is a physiological one itself or coming from a build-up of psychological overwhelm.
A big example of this is stress. Often, the trigger for stress is situational, leading to a psychological reaction, however within our body, hormones are being released to help us react to the stressor. Over time if the body is still under stress, releasing these hormones can lead to overwhelm, psychologically and behaviourally, as well as physically causing symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability.
It is beneficial to treat our bodies well consistently; eating a varied and nutritious diet, trying to exercise where we can, having a sleep routine to allow for rest. However, in the day to day, it can be useful to take a step back and reconnect our psychological and physiological to notice how we're doing overall.
Try it yourself: A body-scan technique
Below I'm going to talk you through a body-scan technique that allows you to relax and get a sense of where the emotions, feelings and trauma are being held.
- Start by finding a quiet and safe space that you can feel comfortable in. Settle into a relaxed position either seated or lying down and close your eyes.
- Allow your mind to quiet as much as possible and steady your breathing to a slow rate. To do this, it can be useful to count your breathing to slow both your mind and breath (breathing in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4 and repeat a few times).
- Now you're ready, take your time to focus your mind on your toes. While you're focusing on your toes notice any tension, pain, or sensations; at the same time, let yourself notice any emotions that come up with the physical sensations you may have noted.
- Now slowly tense and relax your toes to release your focus and move to the soles of your feet to repeat the process. Move your focus upwards to each section of your body doing the same as above by taking your time to notice how each part is feeling and the emotions that may correspond.
- Once you have made your way up your entire body, give yourself some extra time to reflect and note all of what you noticed and allow your mind to wander. When you feel ready, start bringing movement to your fingers and toes, your feet and hands and then the rest of your body to continue on with the rest of your day.
This process can be really powerful and will take some time to do when you first start. If you start to lose focus partway through the exercise, try not to beat yourself up, but instead take some more slow, deep breaths and bring yourself back to your body.
From this exercise, you will be able to connect with parts of your body that could be holding certain emotions, and you might be surprised at how you feel while you're going from limb to limb. As a result, you can then look at ways of processing and managing these symptoms and emotions with therapy or different ways of coping in your toolbox!