Sheena is a Facilitator at BecauseYOU , Founder of Mindful and Body and a trauma-informed Mindfulness Practitioner. This post shares an account of her mental health journey and insights on the relationship between the body and mental health. Please take care of yourself as you read this blog.
There’s a measure called ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences that corresponds to traumatic events and sources of stress that people may encounter in their early life, before the age of 18. It can have an effect on wellbeing not just during the lived experience but also have long term effects on their mental, psychological, physical health. It can result in addiction, violence and risky behaviour, and have repercussions on their education, employment, and other achievements.
When I first saw the ACEs chart several years ago, I counted that by my teens I had experienced or witnessed all ten.
When children experience trauma, they come up with intelligent ways to protect themselves because the harm is often ongoing. For one, by the age of five, I would faint anytime I was afraid. In my teens, I became severely paranoid of being in an explosion outside the home — it had nothing to do with my own experiences but somehow it felt easier to focus on.
In all other circumstances, I learned to dissociate. I became so good at disconnecting from my feelings and memories, I felt like a floating cloud. If I was at home, I was really only in a daydream. I was physically in a classroom but I was not really there. I was intelligent and had experienced the rigour of the Indian education system before I moved abroad as an adolescent, so got by with little effort. But I was in a permanent fugue state.
When I first went to therapy at the age of thirteen, referred by my school, I sat across from a psychiatrist and a counselling psychologist with an absolute straight face, emotionlessly describing some of the devastating experiences of my childhood like I was describing picking up bread on the way home. I was called resilient, diagnosed with mild depression and sent on my way sans treatment. It took another thirteen years for me to even begin to find healing.
I only noticed my body existed because it began hurting. For no apparent reason. I was a physically active child, rounding up all the neighbourhood kids to play every evening, and then having immigrated to a new country, playing for the girl’s football team at my school.
After my body started to hurt, it never stopped. At 11, I was first diagnosed with rheumatic fever, and given a scary dose of 16 painkillers a day and instructed to have regular echo-cardiograms. Engaging myself in physical activity wasn’t easy because I never felt properly recovered or rested. But the time on the field, breathing cold, fresh air, sitting on the grass was the only time I wasn’t daydreaming. In my early 30s, I was eventually diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
It’s so obvious now that the times in my life my memory has been most reliable is when I was engaging my body. I had seen a psychotherapist off and on throughout my life but often felt like I simply had nothing to talk about. Only when I began using my body in a therapeutic setting, did I realise that I did have memories of my difficult past, they just simply could not show up in so many words, but did in flashbacks of feelings. And though our feelings can sometimes be transmuted into thoughts by our brains, language can sometimes be limiting.
By learning to reconnect my floating cloud to my body, I became a person again. I am not alone in finding healing for a lifetime of mental illness in my body.
But the truth is you don’t have to experience trauma or adversity to begin to use the body in your mental health journey. For most, the body is an accessible if not easy place to find healing — we all have one, no matter what it looks like, no matter how it functions, and what our relationship with it might be.
It’s never too late to begin to include our bodies in our mental health and become more acquainted with our feelings, and how they are showing up with the answers we need. I’m happy to report that by including my body in my mental healthcare, on more days than not in a month, my body is also pain free.
My lived experiences led me into a journey of discovery, and I have spent the last several years learning and facilitating mindfulness and somatic practises. I’m so passionate now about the body as a space for healing, I want to invite those who have included their body in their healing to share their stories with me. It doesn’t matter whether your story is day-to-day stress, or diagnosed mental illness — everybody by virtue of being human is deserving of healing.
Where do you begin?
It could be working in formal settings with practitioners of embodied listening, Somatic Experiencing, Integral Somatic Psychology or more.
It could be working with modalities such as pranic healing, or bio-dynamic cranio-sacral therapy, expressive arts or movement therapy, or nature and adventure therapy.
It could be yoga, swimming, exercise, breathwork, mindfulness, acupuncture. It could be hobbies.
There are countless ways to work with the body and it may be one or many of the above, or something else entirely that begins to open up a portal of healing for you.
A note: My heart is with those who have dismissively been told to “just do yoga” when they can barely muster the strength to wake up each day, and this is not to minimise the experiences of others for whom talk therapy has worked adequately. Working with the body is not a cure all, because there is simply no one modality that can claim to be. Mind-body separation is a Western paradigm. When thinking holistically about healing, the body is simply one other way that we may be able to meet our mental health needs.