Reintroducing your mind to your body
Awareness through Somatic IFS
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Do you ever feel like you are living in a glass box and unable to tap into how you feel? Today we’ll explore awareness of the mind and body connection.
In Today’s essay we’ll cover:
1- The myth of separation between mind and body and how research is clearly showing that they are one and the same.
2- The functional medicine model and using modifiable lifestyle factors to impact the mindbody connection
3- Internal Family Systems as a strategy for deeper and more sustainable healing from depression.
4- Somatic therapy and armoring bands where we hold trauma and tension.
5- Three guided exercises to practice reconnecting mind and body in a practical way. [For Members 🙏]
Disclaimer: This blog provides general information and discussions about health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, website or in any linked materials are not intended and should not be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This blog does not constitute the practice of any medical, nursing or other professional health care advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Somewhere towards the end of medical school…
I started feeling like I was a guy living in a big glass cube: isolated and muted from the world of feelings and sensations.
This self diagnosed depression was also self analyzed as my fault for not doing enough.
I needed to have more hobbies, go out more, study more, get better grades, hit the gym more regularly.
I was living a life of “I will feel __X__, when I achieve __Y__.'‘
Had you met me then in some kind of social gathering, you would see: A doctor-to-be with a great future ahead of him, given a privileged life by loving parents, surrounded by friends, involved in projects that he believed in, and a driven individual with a perfect life.
Had you really gotten to know me however, you would see the truth: A self-conscious and self-loathing individual, that is only driven by how people saw him, who was an addict, felt depressed most of the time, had troubled relationships, and was mostly beating himself up.
I walked around feeling completely numb to life, with short bursts of aliveness due to external events, but would fall back into a general grey monotone of a funk.
Symptoms started appearing soon thereafter. Namely:
bouts of dysfunctional sadness
narcolepsy (lots of sleep)
loss of appetite and libido
a debilitating back pain.
My doctor brain went to medicine to try to fix its bodily problems. I went to:
a psychiatrist who prescribed Prozac
a neurologist and spine specialist who told me that “Everything looked healthy” despite the screaming pain in my vertebrae
a chiropractor who started giving me adjustments and massages.
A radiologist for an x-ray
I went on a depression and back pain rollercoaster ride. I would experience slight improvements and go back to more back pain, until I stumbled upon the game changing understanding that I want to share with you today.
“Body and mind, while not identical, cannot be understood separately from each other. We can ignore or deny this paradox, but we cannot escape it.”
Maté, Gabor. The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture
Healing the Separation Wound and Regaining Our “selves”
It is now clear that the separation of mind and body that I learned in medicine is nothing but an illusion rooted in ignorance. A wound of its own accord: A self conviction that we can save ourselves without nature, that the rich can escape the suffering of the poor, and that each organ in our body can be healed alone.
This is eloquently debunked with hard science now with new research from various parts of the globe that show the relationship between personality1, immigration2, child maltreatment3 and more on autoimmune diseases in women, as well as a higher incidence of prostatic cancer in men with suppressed healthy expression of anger4.
Upon the emotional graveyard of what she could not afford to feel, Mee Ok erected an impressive edifice: a positive, can-do persona that not only kept her from experiencing her despair and impelled her to ignore her own needs, but also helped her achieve success beyond what she really believed was her due…Such hyperfunctioning on top of hidden inner distress is a recurring theme among the many autoimmune patients I’ve encountered in my years of practice and teaching.
Maté, Gabor. The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture (pp. 75-76). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Finding Functional Medicine
The first clue I found was functional medicine, which adopts a model of health that incorporates everything that we are.
Family history, trauma, and genetics impact our mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing which in turn affect our physiology, immunology and inflammatory pathways.
What was most liberating was that it promised a way out of disease via modifiable lifestyle factors. I started “hacking” my habits, my back pain and my mood. It worked for a while and I was excited about my data-optimized life for a bit as my health improved.
It made so much sense to me, and I became a certified functional medicine health coach.
However, I was still plagued by feelings of inadequacy and lived in a fear of the next episode of depression.
It was as though if I stopped doing these habits I would fall back into the spiral immediately, and I was working extra hard to make sure that never happened.
I needed something that helped me internally, rather than the layer of habits that seemed shaky and privy to life’s ebbs and flows.
A Deeper Path Towards Wholeness: Internal Family Systems
A few years later, after a big breakup, I found the first clue to a more sustainable path of healing: Internal Family Systems.
I stumbled upon it while reading Carl Jung and learning about the Shadow: that which we disown about ourselves and . I was frantically trying to make sense of the pain I felt in the breakup and finally found a therapist to work with who seemed to understand all of this stuff.
“The mono-mind paradigm has caused us to fear our parts and view them as pathological…we shame ourselves for not being able to control them. In other words, we hate what gets in our way.” Ph.D. Schwartz, Richard,
This was revolutionary for me, because it gave me a path to avoid over identifying with one feeling that was on my mind.
I started being aware of the overachiever in me, as a separate entity that I can talk to. Another part of me was the depressed guy that had an important message for me about how I lived my life. Suddenly I could hear him out and learn about what was making him so sad.
Even deeper, I could reach out to the younger insecure part of me that had carried wounds of insecurity and anxiety from adolescent middle school years and hold them with the tenderness and care that they yearned for.
This helped me realize that even if I were still living in a glass box of separation, I was certainly not alone inside of it.
The ice started to melt, and out of that process a certain feeling of confidence started to emerge in me.
I became much more outgoing, and I started tapping into a feeling of happiness I had only known from childhood.
I felt more like…myself. I started to love the guy again.
This was a very quick change to a problem that existed for a very long time.
“When we open to the reality of what is, even if we don’t like what is, it helps almost immediately.” Kristin Neff, Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive
As I became aware of more and more of these parts however, old patterns seemed to emerge out of nowhere: Beating myself up for not taming a part, or even worse, intellectualizing these parts of me and trying to fix them or discipline them.
In other words, I was still playing a mind game.
There was something else that was itching to heal.
Once again, I needed to go deeper.
The Missing Piece: Somatics and Body Sensations as Building Blocks of Experiences
The third piece of the puzzle came screaming at me through another back attack that was so bad I had to inject myself with pain killers to calm it down.
“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
During the process of divorce, I somehow was lucky enough and clearly destined to be introduced to the magnificent Somatics teacher Staci Haines, author of The Politics of Trauma : Somatics, Healing and Social Justice.
She agreed that Internal Family Systems, while powerful, is done while sitting down, not moving, and was more ‘up there’ than ‘down here’. Even though it does go into the somatic sensations, it is still in the realm of the mind. Somatics then offered a new path for me to go deeper into what was blocking me in relationships and my path of healing.
As I started to learn and practice Somatics, I started to feel certain parts of my body that I did not feel before. My field of awareness expanded dramatically and suddenly what I understood intellectually started to become experiential.
The glass box I lived in started unveiling itself as a strong protective layer of armoring that Staci outlines as “armoring bands”. I was finally onto something.
This totally made sense to me from my years of medicine. There was this gigantic interconnected web of tissue underneath the skin called The Fascia,
‘I know this may sound strange, but so often what we are reacting to is not being able to tolerate what is happening in our own sensations, emotions, and experience. We react to get rid of the feeling, to push away the sensations, because they are associated with something intolerable, painful, and uneasy. Increasing our ability to “allow for” sensations and emotions gives us more choice and decreases our reactivity.’
Haines, Staci. The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice
This was all turbo charged by my Vipassana retreat which trains one to be with these feelings and accept the mindbody phenomenon as a continuum with which awareness and compassion as the way towards healing what ails us.
This is ultimately what brought me to the old wound of medicine, and being able to open these parts of my body that I had not felt before. As I know continue down this path of healing this wound of isolation, the sensations start coming back to me.
My response now is not to hold my breath or numb my pain, but to stand with dignity and courage and allow it to show itself to me.
“Lions aren't used to other creatures staring them down. It's a good tactic for life too; even if you're terrified inside, stare it in the eye.”
― Boyd Varty, Cathedral of the Wild: An African Journey Home
Final Thought: A True Sense of Freedom
What I hope you take away from today, is that by increasing your awareness of your mind, your body, and the interconnectedness of mindbody, you can start building your body’s natural capacity back, regain old powers in parts that we have shunned away, bounce back faster in conflicts, and become more innovative, confident, and compassionate .
In the next health essays, I will tackle further aspects of Somatic IFS that you can do to improve your health and tackle various parts through accessing the breath, movement, resonance, resilience and touch.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK:
What experiences helped you see how body and mind are one and the same?
How do you cope with depression if you ever experience it? What helps long term?
What are thoughts you had while reading today’s essay?
Sunday Practice Session, Meditation and Research Links
Here are 3 guided exercises that you can try out this week to expand your awareness of parts of your psyche and the bodily sensations they hold. You can also find the research footnotes and written instruction below.
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