“The body keeps score – and it always wins.” – Brené Brown
So it turns out, this quote by the ever-amazing Brené Brown, is something I have learned to be true. And by learned, I mean I suspected but wasn’t totally convinced until an occupational therapist, a naturopath, a chiropractor, and a massage therapist all told me this year. Separately. Multiple times. About myself. Without even knowing about each other! How rude.
Despite the fact that I had been reading about this phenomenon in personal development books, hearing about it from people I look up to who overcame their shit, going to conferences on trauma/regulation/attachment, aaand listening to stories about this very thing in podcasts, I was stiiillll pretty hopeful that it wasn’t true – about me at least. I apply it all the time to my students (I know, another hypocracy-laced story!) .
Also, you guys, I love yoga. Interesting fact, I also often avoid yoga. For. This. Exact. Reason. Our bodies store and remember everything and, one way or another, it’s going to use – and release – that energy. When you spend a lot of your existence repressing or re-directing, it can be quite scary when a release happens all at once because, at some point, we learned that it was not okay to experience the world in the way in which we had been experiencing it.
Now, I should clarify – as much as I Hermione the shit out of everything by finding and absorbing all the books I can on whichever topic I am particularly obsessed with at the moment – I am not a doctor or therapist. In fact, I am wholly unqualified to be describing and explaining this to you. So please do not take any information I ever give you and take it to your doctor as evidence. At best, they will give you an eye roll to accompany their scoff as they continue their rush out the door to their next equally-hurried appointment. I am merely discussing my own opinions, experiences, and intepretations.
Alright, with that out of the way – I shall continue my entirely unqualified explanation!
Do you ever feel particularly tight or sore in your shoulders and neck, or your hips? Do you get migraines or gut pain? (I feel like I’m writing an infomercial for a miracle cream) Is it (I’m sure, totally coincidentally) inconveniently also when you are going through a particularly stressful time in your life? Or when you were experiencing depression or anxiety? Grief? Unexpressed anger?
Here’s the thing. Our minds and bodies are not separate. Your mind originates in your brain and your brain is physically a part of your body. It is as simple as that. Plus we really know very little about our nervous system and how it interacts with all our other systems still! A huge portion of it is supposed to be in our gut! The make up of human beings is infinitely cool and also just as infinitely mysterious as that of the ocean or space. And, as I assume we are all at least somewhat aware, we often lack the most perspective about ourselves…
ANYWAYS – when you do not deal with things in your mind, when something is a problem that is yet to be solved or energy that is yet to be used, it stores it in your body (because your brain is a part of your body and no systems are separate!).
It has been proven that if we still have a problem on our mind, our subconcious cannot relax until it is solved. This can be as simple as not putting away the dirty laundry on your floor or not knowing what you’re doing for your presentation at work tomorrow. No matter what you tell yourself, both will leave you with a less restful sleep. It has also been proven that everything is a transaction of energy. Think about it: our nervous system operates basically as an electric ciruit, passing impulses across synapses to the next neuron. Everything in matter is also energy, with the energy dictating its state of being – solid, liquid, gas. Also Newton explained it all to us a long time ago. Energy must be dissipated and for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Objects in motion stay in motion until acted upon. Objects at rest stay at rest until acted upon. Action breeds action. Inaction breeds inaction. Everything has a compound effect.
Okay, slight tangent over, now that you are hopefully convinced (but not so convinced that you will take my word to a professional to scoff at my lack of credentials!). The point is that our body stores energy and it can manifest in multiple ways. The best way to deal with it? Well, this is a theory of kinetic energy, so… movement. That’s why yoga (and I assume other forms of physical activity, but honestly my lack of coordination has prevented me from experiencing it for myself, so I’ll just take your word for it) can be so scary for those of us skilled at the art of repression. When you are doing yoga, not only are you forcing both hemispheres of your brain, as well as the multiple body systems, to actually work together and communicate through the breath and coordination of both sides of the body, but you are also releasing energy and the stuck spaces with the deep stretching. This has a hugely emotional impact.
The first time I was doing a yoga challenge (which, by the way, I am notorious for starting challenges and maayyybe accomplishing a week, so don’t get all impressed – I have yet to actually complete any sort of challenge.), I had been going for probably ten or so days in a row. I think I was in a Hot Yin class and I had rushed there in between my university classes and work, nearly not making it, and I was super stressed. The room was cramped and there was barely a hands-width between mats. After picking my way through the other bodies deep in their savasana, I ended up getting one of the very last spots at the very front of the room, in the corner, where I would not be able to see the instructor at all. In hot yoga, the front is also often the hottest AND everyone can see you. I LOVE hot yoga but I do not enjoy an audience and the heat and I have a very love/hate relationship. Anyways, I had commited to this experience and I was all in – despite the challenges of the situation. Part way through, I felt my right hip release for the very first time and I was overcome with incredibly intense emotion – grief, fear, shame, sorrow – all the messy stuff. I spent the rest of the class silently sobbing as I experienced emotions I had not let myself experience in years. Maybe it was because I was already stressed. It was, after all, an incredibly stressful portion of my life. Maybe I was PMS-ing. Both are totally plausible. However, the fact remains that this release of emotion did not occur until a physical release had happened.
I did not finish the challenge and I did not return to yoga for a long time after that. I told myself for many years that I was just too busy, it was too expensive (still totally valid, but we’ll save the equity and accessibility rant for another day!), and that it was just for those who were really privileged (another story to come later about the perspective of lack vs. abundance) but, in truth, I was scared. I did not want to experience that again. I had my emotions in a hard lock down and that was how I knew to navigate the world. I was successful while navigating my world that way.
This story and scenario would be repeated multiple times over the next few years. Either I would succumb to a release of emotion through movement or through having a few too many adult beverages, and afterwards I would again be scared into an emotional lockdown. Each time the emotional experience was both powerful and terrifying. If that cycle was not what took place that year, ultimately my body would fail me and I would be sick for months. When I am sick, I get every possible cold and flu as well as infections, all joints and muscles in my body hurt, and it feels like each of my limbs is weighed down by a block of cement. It is an absolute battle to go through the day and I. am. so . tired. On top of this, I have gut issues and migraines. It’s a real peach of a situation.
Last year I decided that enough was enough and I was figuring out what was wrong with my body once and for all! I was getting a diagnosis, dammit!
It turned out I was severely anemic, deficient of most vitamins and minerals, and had antibodies for gliadin (gluten), casein (dairy), and eggs. I had signs of inflammation everywhere and my thyroid was slightly off but nothing more serious. I made the required changes, started an exercise program, and carried on.
Things got slightly better, for a bit. Then this year was a throwback. A throwback to the days when all the small things were hard things and getting out of bed felt like a feat that deserved a frickin gold medal. Some days I gave in. Most days I did not. Either way, the shame and exhaustion were real and so heavy that I could not possibly bend to put them down.
I found more professionals – another naturopath, a better massage therapist, a chiropractor, the occupational therapist, and my doctor (begrudgingly) – and tried to recruit all of them in a discussion of not only my body but my mind and mental health. I absorbed all the books and seminars I possibly could on the mind-body connection. After all I had been through, I was finally forced to admit that the two were not disconnected – even though I so desperately wanted them to be.
This is what I learned: my body is holding on to and storing all the things I have not allowed my mind to process or fully experience. The absolute most effective way for me to deal with this, on top of my dietary restrictions and taking the required medications, is to move my body. To sit in and experience the discomfort. Because this year, my body ran out of storage for all its remembering. It kept score and it won.
That can’t happen again. I love my partner, my friends, my family, and my career – my life – far too much to let this cycle continue.
So I’m telling you – no, I urge you, move your body. In whatever way feels good and makes sense to you. Sit in the moment and experience your emotions. Do the ugly cry. It’s human. And remember that your mind and body (and spirit!) are vastly mysterious and a marvel to be wondered at! Do not get weighed down by their intricacies – celebrate them! Embrace them! Empower them! That is what we do when we stop seeing them as separate. For goodness’ sakes!
And for the sake of all that is good.
In love and gratitude,
P.S. If you would like more information on the mind-body intricacies, I recommend you check out the works of Gabor Maté, Brené Brown, Irene Lyon, Lara Heimann, and whatever mental health professionals resonate with you.