September 14, 2011

When Our Bodies Talk

The end of August was an unsettling time for me. My clerkship, a job I adored, was nearing its end; Alex and I were moving back into the apartment we had subletted to friends; I was exploring the unchartered territory of book writing, figuring out my budgets sans federal income and benefits, and rearranging my travel plans.  Despite the fact that we were in between apartments, I was almost jobless, and I had no idea as to how the next four months would unfold, I felt surprisingly calm.

At least I thought I did.

Two days before my job ended, the air mattress Alex and I had been sleeping on popped. (I blame Alex.)  After moving to the couch, I fell asleep, woke up that morning as usual, and went to work. Half way through the day, I started feeling itchy.  I knew I should have moisturized this morning, I grumbled, as I finished writing my last court order.

As I typed, my eye caught a glimpse of something blotchy, and when I looked down, huge welts spanned across my forearm.  "I'm breaking into hives" I shrieked, running into my co-clerks room and scrunching up my collared shirt to point to the random bumps across my arm.

"What's happening to me?" I lamented about my yet-to-be-diagnosed ailment.  Though they had been conditioned over the year to never take me too seriously, my co-clerks agreed it was probably an allergic reaction.  But they were lawyers, so what did they know?

I gchatted my sister-in-love (not yet by-law) Julia and told her the news.  "I think it may be from sleeping on your couch with that wool blanket," I stated, placing full blame on her.

"Hmm . . . " she considered, "I dunno . . . perhaps it could be stress?"

"No, it's not stress," I scoffed, "I don't feel stressed at all!"

Despite the fact she's a psychotherapist in training, I rebuked Julia's suggestion, and took a close up photo of my skin to show to my friend Hannah, who's in medical school.  Besides being the only person in the world with more "conditions" than me, she knew her diseases well.  "Hives," she texted back.

"Am I allergic to something in my environment?" I texted. 

"Prob. But could be something much more serious." she responded. "C u at dinner." (After a few glasses of wine that night, Hannie proved useless in her diagnosis.)

A few days later, I went home to Canada, where, as I shared previously, my week of relaxation dissipated into job interviews and Spanish tutoring. The hives didn't stop. I would be fine for half of the day, gently feel an itch on my neck, and notice welts breaking out of my skin.

"What's wrong with me?" I asked my mom in an attempt to receive sympathy (and perhaps a new sweater).

"You're fine," my mom responded matter-of-factly. "It's just stress related."

"But I don't feel stress!" I bemoaned, puffy faced, welted up, and engulfed by three Spanish books, research papers for my job interview, and my journals.

I didn't think I was lying to myself. I really didn't feel that stressed.  I was sleeping well (granted I was dreaming in Spanish), eating healthy, laying off the coffee (which I recently observed gives me heart palpitations), and going for jogs.  Could it be that my mind didn't think I was stressed, but my body was telling me otherwise? Does my body have a separate voice from my mind?

This had to be the case.  Over the past few months, I've heard countless stories about people whose bodies communicated to them more effectively than their minds.

Megan survived a terrible plane crash six years ago, and her father tragically died in the crash.  She couldn't remember anything about the incident itself, but a few months after the fact, she accidentally bumped her knee.  The bump triggered countless flashbacks about the crash, and she suddenly had an image of her knee bashing into the seat in front of her.  Her knee had held the trauma of the accident, not her mind.

Katherine had been praying for a prestigious job opportunity with a well-known politician.  The day after she received it, she became physically ill and remained in bed all weekend.  After further reflection, she realized that although she thought she had wanted this job, the prospect of working in the position caused her extreme anxiety.  Her body was telling her something before her mind could register it. She declined the job offer and weeks later found a job she adores.

Six months ago, Anna was studying for her SAT's.  Extremely bright and dedicated, she took countless practice SAT's and performed really well on all of them. When it came time to take the test itself, however, she never scored nearly as high as she did on her practice tests.  She had classic performance anxiety.  After being disappointed once again after a test, her mom asked me if I had any recommendations for her.  I certainly had no insights to offer in terms of vocab or math problems, but I recommended that Anna try some mindfulness techniques.  Soon after, Anna spent a five minutes every few days doing body scans to observe how her body was unconsciously hold stress. Once she acknowledged her mind was holding stress, she effectively dealt with it, and a few months later her test scores skyrocketed.

Countless studies also show that after physical or sexual abuse, survivors have an increased tendency to suffer from unexplained stomach pains. Like Megan's story, their bodies may hold unresolved trauma in the gut.

All of these stories evidence that our bodies communicate to us even when our minds don't listen. 

As much as I wanted to believe that my hives were a product of allergies (itself indicative of the fact that I didn't want to admit stress), I have no doubt that the hives were stress-induced in large part because once I admitted to myself that I was stressed, the hives started to subside (with a healthy remedy of baths, yoga, and remembering to breathe).  It was if my body was screaming to me in the only way it knew how: "listen to me woman; calm yourself down!" And, only after my mind acknowledged what my body was communicating did I start to feel better.

I can't escape my issues through mental repression.  Undoubtedly, my body will hold the tension until I am ready to deal with it, and only after I align my body with my mind will healing occur.

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