Language of the Body
Your body knows
Freud discovered that "dreams are the royal road to the
unconscious." Recently depth psychologists have discovered that the
body is another road to the unconscious or one's deeper truth. Like
dreams, body symptoms present information of which we're unaware. In
a dream, this information comes as symbols. In the body, it comes as
symptoms. Many of you have heard the statement, "the body doesn't
lie." The body is the direct expression of the psyche and it's
difficult for the body to hide the truth of our internal
experiences. This is both a blessing and a curse. The shape, aches,
movement, twitches, diseases and symptoms are the words the body
uses to convey our authentic feelings and what's going on inside. I
have witnessed this phenomenon in counseling people in the last ten
What are your symptoms saying?
Author, Gregg Levoy has gleaned several examples from medical
research where people's symptoms reveal what is missing in their
• A man suffering from lower-back pain
whenever he sits down experiences a complete reprieve of his symptom
when he realizes that, "I hate where I'm sitting" and quits his desk
job to start his own company.
• An adoptee, searching for his
biological mother, is suddenly stricken with an inability to blink,
and he says to the doctor, "If I blink, I might miss my mother."
• A woman whose doctor says he can find
no physiological reason for her internal bleeding says she can't
help feeling that "I'm crying from the inside out."
• A man suffers a heart attack after
having stomach cancer, which necessitated the removal of half his
stomach, and concludes: "Eat less, love more."
• A woman miscarries and says afterward
that she really had "no room" for a baby in her life.
In my work as a psychotherapist and health educator, I've
discovered symptomatic patterns that patients themselves have
revealed during insightful moments. A woman who would often injure
her knees, declared in a moment of anger and defeat: "I cannot stand
being pushed around by my boss anymore." A teenager who kept
vomiting every week shared that she "couldn't stomach the verbal
abuse in her family." Children often get sick before an exam or when
they are stuck with a teacher they don't like. A man suffering from
anxiety attacks while driving on the freeway because he didn't know
where the exits were, became aware that he felt trapped when his
father would angrily discipline him and he had no way to "exit" out
of the house to protect himself. A CEO with severe headaches
realized she was "under constant pressure to make her company a
Fortune 500." Many men with lower back pain have felt better when
they have directly and appropriately spoken their anger.
Of course, nausea, head or back aches have physical causes that
must be addressed by other health practitioners as well. But
ignoring the symbolic or psychological cause results in attacking
the symptom, rather than learning from it to heal our whole self.
Illness as metaphor
Physician and author, Bernie Siegel explains, "When you start
looking for the message in disease, you realize that there always is
one." What is your body trying to tell you? Are you taking time to
In many families it isn't O.K. or safe to communicate your
emotional needs, concerns, or pain. These unspoken and unheard
issues remain in the body and are consciously or unconsciously
"spoken" through symptoms. Levoy suggests that following the modern
commandment of-Get well!-we try to eradicate the symptom without
their having a chance to deliver their messages to us. He continues:
Symptoms mean something. They have wisdom, metaphoric power,
method in their madness. They are one of the languages the soul uses
to get across something about it self. The word pathology, in fact
means the speech of suffering, the logic of pain, and in order to
understand that logic, in order to speak to the wild imagination at
work in symptoms, we must bring it a certain supple and symbolic
Asking the right questions
What is the most helpful and healing attitude to meet our
illnesses with? Stephen Levine, author of One Year to Live,
clarifies that: "We are responsible to our illness, not for our
illness." Rather than using sickness to beat yourself up, it's
better to use illness and pain for what they were designed for-to
get your attention. The question is not so much what to do about our
suffering, but what to do with it. Being responsible, Levine says,
means asking not "Why am I ill?" but "What is illness?" Not"Why am I
in pain?" but "What is pain?" It is seeking the what rather than the
why (Levoy 1998).
How can therapy help?
In therapy I use a variety of modalities to access the underlying
issues or messages beneath your physical symptoms. By creating a
safe space, observing your body, helping you relax, asking you
relevant questions and other methods, we begin to reveal your
unspoken experiences. Thus, your symbolic body connects with your
insightful mind. This body-mind communication is the first step in
the healing. Feelings associated with your symptoms begin to arise.
You might get sad, angry, tense, relaxed, anxious, powerful, weak,
fearful, feel grief, and/or loss. By allowing those feelings to
surface and being present to them within a therapeutic relationship,
helps release tension and pain in the body. I then teach you to
directly express the underlying issue through words, not symptoms.
This congruency creates confidence, strength and well-being in the
Start-ups, Stocks, and
Q: I just moved to Silicon
Valley, California a year ago to work for a start-up company with
stock options. I had a satisfying, well paying, and relaxed job
while living closely with my entire family. Now I am living with
room mates and I work all the time. I have recently developed high
blood pressure and migraines. My doctor has suggested my
high-pressured, fast-paced lifestyle has much to do with my illness.
What do you think?
A: Your doctor is wise to
counsel you to re-evaluate and change the way you are living rather
than just prescribe medication. Health professionals are discovering
that many illnesses and physical problems are stress related. Do you
think your body is telling you something? You have at least three
major stressors in your life at present: 1) recent migration -
leaving your satisfying job and close family; 2) adjusting to a very
different culture by yourself; 3) working compulsively without
taking care of your body, social, and spiritual needs.
You are following a "chained to the desk and computer" syndrome
that has now become common among young men who want to make their
million fast. This is very tempting, but comes at a big price.
Indian wisdom says we live in a dual world-meaning, everything has
an opposite, or shadow side. In your case, it means you have to cut
off from many other essential and meaningful aspects of life such as
family, recreation, rest, spirituality, and good friendships.
Although financially successful, this is a lonely, sick, and
impoverished life. Your body is starting to pay the price. You need
to balance your life by replacing restorative activities and time in
place of work. Find other riches in and around you that have nothing
to do with acquiring more money, rather to make you a happier,
healthier person now.
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