We come to know ourselves through our sensory perceptions of life, how the world affects us and how we move within it. Our bodies are a map of our histories, the narrative of our lives; they record the ways in which we were brought up, they chronicle our accidents and illnesses, our emotional experiences and our beliefs. They reflect the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories others tell about us.
A course of treatment from a bodywork therapist can affect us in unexpected ways. What starts as a visit for a sore shoulder or a tendency to headaches could become a journey into the heart of our emotional life and perhaps the depths of early experience. While the so called mind-body connection is a familiar concept amongst therapists, it is not necessarily so obvious to the general public.
As craniosacral therapists and holistic bodywork practitioners we see our clients and their lives as a whole and not just as a collection of symptoms. In the words of the writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon:
'Life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole...’
In our work we frequently come across symptoms which seem to have no physiological cause. They could be described as psychosomatic, a word that has some negative connotations. The word is derived from the ancient Greek words “Psyche” meaning of the soul and “Soma” meaning of the body. From our perspective as bodyworkers, we are baffled that in our culture this connection is still so often unrecognised. Where it is seen, it is perceived as somehow less significant than conditions with physical origins. Illness usually has more than one cause, and it is really surprising to us that the mind's effect on the body is still so poorly understood.
As bodywork therapists we are uniting mind and body through the medium of touch. Emotions and thoughts manifest in us on a physical level. Feeling butterflies in the stomach is a simple illustration of how a mental or emotional state is reflected in the body; a more extreme example might be IBS. Very often IBS is triggered either by actual stressful events in the present or by the perception that stress is imminent. Sometimes the trigger is not even in the conscious mind, but is a buried memory from the past. The body, in this case the gut, reacts in the same way however the message reaches it, and physical symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea or constipation may result depending on the individual and their unique set of responses. By treating only the stomach, we are taking a very narrow view of this person’s problems. If our focus is only on alleviating disagreeable symptoms we are not listening to the whole story, we are only seeing a set of conditions.
Holistic therapies look at the factors that might have produced symptoms in the present, or may have historically trained the body to evoke these reactions. If there is no obvious physical cause, the body may be reflecting unresolved traumas that we have relegated to our unconscious. Rather than trying to tackle these emotions and buried memories head on it is a perfectly valid approach to work on a physical level.
In our society we always seem to be searching for the ultimate healing answer. There are wounds that exist on the different planes of our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical lives and we suffer because of a disconnection between them. We very often find ourselves working at extremely profound levels using both our own skills as counsellors, and by sharing our clients with psychotherapists. Beginning to see where and how emotional problems are manifesting in their bodies gives clients an opportunity to reach a new understanding of themselves as wholly connected beings and as part of something greater than their own stories. Much psychotherapeutic work is done with people who are extremely dissociated from their physical selves, and it seems obvious to us that a grounding in the body is fundamental to their recovery. Our experience after a combined 40 years of practice, is that collaboration between talking therapies and integrative bodywork is a particularly transformative way of working.
Liz Kalinowska and Daška Hatton are the authors of Every Body Tells a Story