“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”—Hans Selye, MD, pioneer in understanding stress
We humans spend a lifetime in our bodies, yet all too often we assume that body and mind are separate—the mind controlling what we do, the body dutifully obeying its commands. The eminent neuroscientist Candace Pert, PhD, author of Molecules of Emotion, wrote, “Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body—body and mind are one.” The perceived separateness of mind and body has contributed to an epidemic of stress, chronic pain, and sleeplessness in our culture. Cultivating somatic awareness of the integration of our body and mind may help us achieve a greater sense of well-being. It may even extend our lives.
Stress, the nervous system, and the body
As newborns, unlike most animals, we are not able to consciously control our bodies. But as we gradually learn how to move within our bodies and engage our senses, our body awareness expands. This awareness may be arrested, however, as we develop habits and succumb to the stressors of daily living—like when we sit for hours on end in front of a computer or allow our stressful lives to put us in a persistently anxious state. Residues of habitual patterns are held in the body as muscle tension. Regularly experiencing emotions like anger and fear can also cause persistent muscle tension; both can result in various forms of chronic distress.
Our nervous systems evolved to enable us to cope with short-term, life-threatening stressors. The so-called fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful threat to our survival. This is a healthy response as long as the fight is followed by rest and rejuvenation. The pressures of contemporary living can be almost 24/7. Many of us never have a chance to release tension and to really relax. Over time, such unrelieved stress can take an extreme psychological and physical toll in such forms as anxiety and chronic pain.
Body keeps score
Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, describes “the extreme disconnection from the body that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience.” Dr. van der Kolk’s pioneering work on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has shown that the most critical aspect of healing is learning to fully embrace one’s emotional, psychological, and physical self. Having an inner sense of self alerts us to potential disharmonies and enables the body to reharmonize itself.
Our bodies are truly amazing in their structure and function. Information received from our bodies and the environment through our five senses is transmitted to our brain through the nervous system. Habitual stresses and traumas can produce muscle contractions in specific areas of the body. Over time these contractions become so unconscious and imbedded that we lose the capacity to sense or control them. The result is stiffness, soreness, and restricted range of movement. Thomas Hanna, PhD, philosophy professor, founder of the field of somatics, and author of Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health, coined the term sensory-motor amnesia for this phenomenon.
The nervous system regulates every function of our body. The autonomic nervous system acts largely unconsciously, or involuntarily, regulating bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, and respiration. The somatic nervous system, also known as the voluntary nervous system, contains both nerves that send information to the brain and nerves that send information from the brain to the body and includes motor neurons responsible for voluntary movements like walking or lifting. Pain, whether physical or emotional, is an essential part of life designed to help us avoid harmful or dangerous stimuli or circumstances. The sensation of pain (or even numbness) acts as a messenger, the nervous system’s way of telling us something is wrong. We can ignore its message and suffer, or we can learn from it and take action.
When our senses and feelings become muffled by sensory motor amnesia, we no longer feel fully alive. Our bodies become more rigid, achy, or numb as the range of muscle movement is diminished because we’ve forgotten how to move those muscles. When we believe our mind is separate and takes charge of the body, we may accept that our physical and emotional pain is due to “my limitations” or “getting old.” Such acceptance enhances our feeling of separateness and can cause us to lose our sense of what it means to be human. Consequently, we are unable to realize our full potential.
According to Dr. Hanna, however, the brain is a highly adaptive organ. We can retrain our nervous system, awakening the areas of the brain that have forgotten how to regulate both physical and emotional patterns in the body. Somatic awareness helps us acknowledge the presence of our whole self within our environment, rather than viewing our body as something separate from ourselves. We become acutely aware of our feelings, sensations, movements, and intentions at any given moment. Such self-awareness enables us to address trauma and anxiety and thus promote healing.
“As we grow older, our bodies–and our lives–should continue to improve, right up until the very end.” -Thomas Hanna, founder of Clinical Somatic Education
Classic approaches that may help reawaken body awareness include yoga, t’ai chi, Yoga Nidra meditation, massage, and breathwork. Specific methods developed over the past century include the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Hanna Somatic Education. These practices are similar in that they teach gentle movements to identify and reverse harmful habits and learn to move more freely. Somatic therapies are also being used in psychotherapy for people who suffer from sexual dysfunction, digestive disorders, and other physical/emotional ailments.
Participants in a National Institutes of Health study on body awareness reported that cultivating somatic awareness helped them become aware of the differences between thinking about a sensation and directly experiencing the sensation. This awareness has helped them gain a more accepting attitude toward the changing sensations in the body. With less judgment and analysis of situations, they had more openness to various possibilities and solutions. One person noted: “The more comfortable I become in my body and not into my head, the more comfortable I find people are with me.”
My own journey
Cultivating somatic awareness has been a lifelong journey for me, having been drawn to many unique ways of being in my body, including practicing yoga, dancing, and engaging in various forms of movement practices. When I was first introduced to iRest® Yoga Nidra meditation, I immediately fell in love with it because of its emphasis on body awareness, and I knew I wanted to help awaken this awareness in others. Yet, I still struggled with my own patterns of muscle tension, especially when sitting at the computer or driving long distances. I recently enrolled in a somatic movement education training program that teaches simple movements to help relax muscles. I’ve already experienced a positive change in my body, and I am excited to have another tool to teach others that can enable them to experience integration of mind and body and live healthier and perhaps longer lives.
In addition to Dr. Hanna’s book on Somatics, I highly recommend : The Pain Relief Secret: How to Retrain Your Nervous System, Heal Your Body, and Overcome Chronic Pain, by Sarah Warren.