First published in The Hindu, 1 April 2023
When it comes to mental health, we readily associate thoughts and feelings as being integral to our well-being. While cognitive and affective processes play a significant role in how we go about our lives, we normally don’t associate our physical bodies as having a similar impact on our moods. Yet, our relationship to our body and its signals are intimately tied to mental health and happiness, and even the decisions we make. Many of us have “gut feelings” that we may dismiss only to regret our decisions or actions later. Body trust is a skill that can be cultivated and honed.
In an article on Psyche.com, author Saga Briggs spells out how we can learn to trust our bodies and its signals so that we lead fuller and richer lives. We all experience various internal sensations but most of us don’t know how to listen to what our stomachs, lungs, or hearts are telling us, let alone respond to them in appropriate ways. Briggs emphasizes that body trust is not a fuzzy notion related to quackery but a concept rooted in science. Interoception is the “process of sensing the body from within.” It encompasses signals like heartbeat, hunger, breathing and the need to use the restroom. A number of psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression, are linked to suboptimal interoception skills.
Whether it’s a rumble in your tummy, a pulsating heart, shortness of breath or a mild headache, it’s not sufficient to simply notice these sensations. According to Briggs, we must connect with them in a “curious, compassionate, mindful way.” Further, we need to recognize these sensations not only when we are alone or at home, but in multiple contexts, whether we are socializing with friends or writing an exam. Once we attend to these bodily signals, we can then choose whether we respond to them or ignore them. Having such a “respectful orientation toward bodily experience” forms the crux of body trust.
According to Briggs, cultivating body trust is not merely limited to those who are facing mental health challenges but includes everyone. Students, dancers, athletes and anyone who needs to make decisions under pressure can gain from trusting their bodies. So, what can we do to gain a more salubrious relationship with our bodies? Briggs offers the following suggestions.
Engage in at least two short mindfulness sessions daily. The purpose of this exercise is to pay attention to your body intentionally. This could involve doing a five-minute breathing activity or a body scan where you notice different sensations emanating from different parts of your body, starting from your feet and gradually moving to your head. Briggs cautions us that we may feel unsettled when first doing these activities. But instead of disregarding uncomfortable or distressing bodily signals, ask yourself what you might learn from them.
As your awareness of your body increases, start labelling the sensations. Does your throat feel dry or squeamish? Is your stomach in knots or inflated like a balloon? What feelings do you typically associate with these sensations? Then, you might want to ‘reappraise’ the same sensations. Does a growly tummy always mean that I am fearful?
Could it be that I ate something heavy? Does a burning sensation in my gullet mean that I’m very angry? How can I express my anger in a healthy and socially-appropriate way?
In their book, Reclaiming Body Trust, authors Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant, remind us that body trust also involves compassion towards your body. Accepting your body as it is, not letting “oppressive beauty standards” dictate your rhythms and routines, listening to your appetites and moving your body to feel rejuvenated are also essential ingredients of body trust. Ultimately, feeling at home in your body and trusting its inherent ‘wisdom’ are key to both your physical and mental well-being.
(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com.)