These days I suspect most of us are prepared to accept that stress in its various forms can cause us physical discomfort, if not chronic illness. Whilst physical pain is something we can be acutely conscious of, we are often less aware of our psychological issues, and perhaps even less so of the connection between the two. And if we have spent formative parts of our lives learning – probably unconsciously – how to avoid owning our psychological discomfort it is not surprising that so much of it goes unacknowledged. Thankfully in counselling there is now a greater willingness to acknowledge the connection between mind and body and to work with this.
Dr Jim Byrne, a counsellor and author in West Yorkshire, recently tweeted about lifestyle coaching and health coaching which he says ‘overlap significantly [and] seem to appeal to a growing number of counsellors’. At the same time, Celia Harrison, co-founder of the dissociative disorder association First Person Plural, is writing a series of articles about how ‘to include the body in our therapeutic work’. This approach acknowledges the importance of monitoring physical feelings occurring during the course of therapy sessions and developing curiosity about the meaning that these have for clients.
While most counsellors would see their work as supporting the whole person, most counsellors are not also doctors of medicine, fitness instructors, nutritionists or life coaches. Yet generally it does make sense to take note of and work with the physical story alongside the psychological one.
You can look at the mind/body connection the other way round way as well. For example, there are obvious dos and don’ts about how we manage our physical health, such as what and how much we eat and drink and how and when we take exercise. It is now well established, for example, that improving your exercise regime stimulates the release of endorphins, the so-called ‘feel good’ hormones. Clearly, being sensible about the basics of physical health also helps us psychologically.
Developing awareness of what proper physical care for ourselves really means may simply involve noting over time how we might be neglecting our physical health. We can then gradually move away from this and towards more actively caring for our bodies or being less punishing of them.
As well as generally adopting a sensible attitude to self-care there also are a number of specific disciplines that can help us routinely care for and respect ourselves, from the more active end of the spectrum (such as sports, jogging and visiting a gym) to slower and more mindful activities (such as Pilates, yoga and tai chi). All of these have benefits for both mind and body. To underline the fact that mind and body do not exist in isolation from each other, Judith Lasater, in her excellent and comprehensive Living your Yoga – finding the spiritual in everyday life, places a very significant emphasis on yoga’s psychological benefits.
But we do need to claim some time as our own in order to exercise real self-care. Of course in 21st century western culture we are all busy – too busy. But in Lasater’s own words, ‘When I think that I don’t have time today for a twenty-minute relaxation, that is a sure sign I really need it’.