Using Your Body as a Habit – How Integrating Your Body Can Foster Healing
The Importance of Healthy Habits in Psychotherapy
While therapy sessions are helpful, most of our healing work is realized outside of the therapist’s office. Because the majority of our lives are spent outside of therapy sessions, using your body to anchor new habits is beneficial for alleviating stress and improving mental health conditions, and particularly trauma.
Years back in the Hellenistic Period — roughly the fourth through first centuries BCE — Hellenistic Philosophy evolved as a means of removing suffering from one’s life. How does one live well in the world? The key can be found through instilling habits.
- For Stoicism — which is the foundation of modern-day Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)— philosophy was not abstract theory. Rather, philosophy was a practice in the “art of living.”
- Epictetus said, “every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.”
- Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE) recognized that habits were crucial for the development of character. A person’s habits form their identity and shape their being and actions. Therefore, finding joy in life is a habit.
Habits are crucial for living a healthy life, and satisfaction and fulfillment in life can be cultivated through conscientious habits — something confirmed by contemporary neuroscience.
Yet there are significant differences between theory and practice.For example, as a therapist, I often wonder if my clients assume I have my own mental health in perfect order. Do they think I’m wholly accepting and forgiving? Do they assume I always know exactly what to do or say? That I feel content and connected at all times?
The truth is that I struggle just like any other human being. Most mornings, I’m plagued by brain fog and need a couple of hours before I feel alert and able to function. My mood can be reactive or irritable as I wonder about my job performance or worry about fitting in with my friends. Like everyone else, I wonder about my place in the world. I feel pressure to perform — to be “on,” to be likable, and to always be insightful and efficient. I get frustrated when I can’t live up to these impossible standards, and I can lose hours of my day ruminating on my imaginary shortcomings or conflicts.
We’re often more accepting of others than we are of ourselves. You probably know from experience that it’s easier to support a friend who is struggling than it is to show the same kindness to yourself. You can immediately forgive someone else for an accident, but harangue yourself for making a smaller mistake.
I’ve been in therapy for many years, and it has helped me greatly. But we don’t spend our lives in the therapist’s office. It’s out in the world that we encounter our problems and challenges — without the immediate supervision of a skilled therapist — meaning that we play the most important role in our own healing.
So how do we manage our own growth on a day-to-day basis? This is where our habits come into play.
Using the Body to Create Habits to Help with Trauma Responses
Very generally, a habit is something you do repeatedly, as part of a routine, without thinking too much about it. Although you might think of a habit as something rigid that’s ingrained and automatic, given this definition, it can also be something that is a constructive, goal-directed behavior.
Habits can help us learn and free us from having to consciously remember mundane, everyday tasks. For instance, having an automatic habit of brushing your teeth before bed means you typically won’t spend time or energy during the day worrying about whether you’ll remember to reach for your toothbrush in the evening.
A good habit would be something we strive for, as opposed to the negative consequences of a bad habit, such as developing lung disease associated with cigarette smoking. This brings us back to Aristotle, for whom a habit is something we acquire to improve our performance and make us more successful in achieving a goal. His view was that habits help to instill virtues and develop character. Creating physical habits can help us improve both our physical and mental health. But the reverse is also true.
If we have a history of trauma, we can wear ourselves into ruts of hyperarousal — the fight or flight state — with our behavioral responses. To remedy this, it’s important to establish physical habits and practices to help regulate our thoughts and feelings.
More specifically, Judith Herman writes in Trauma and Recovery that people who have experienced traumatic stress must restore a sense of physical safety to support their healing process. As noted in Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is particularly problematic, with its impacts on every aspect of daily life, including depression, anxiety, personality changes, and social disconnection.
Integrating the Mind and Body to Promote Mental and Physical Health
There’s a growing recognition in neuroscience that our thoughts, emotions, and physical bodies are deeply integrated. In other words: it is difficult to fully understand our perceptions without our physical selves.
Plain and simple, our bodies are part of our identity. The body plays a fundamental role in the development of one’s self. Having physical form is how we are able to move through the world and interact with each other. We are physical beings, and our bodies are necessary for healing.
Integrating mind-body practices and activities like yoga, Qigong, Tai-Chi, and dance can be beneficial not only to our physical wellbeing, but to our mental health as well.
These and similar activities rely on the development and strengthening of our proprioceptive, interoceptive, and kinesthetic awareness, reinforcing our sense of self in the world. Movement activities which encourage contemplation, inner awareness, and mind-body connection can have a positive impact on numerous psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Studies have shown that movement-based activities can promote stress reduction for PTSD, reduce anxiety and depression, increase pain tolerance, boost self-esteem, and improve wellbeing for people with chronic illnesses. These activities can also impact physical stress markers and cognitive function.
Qigong in particular has been used to address cardiac disease, bone loss, Parkinson’s disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, and weight maintenance. Studies on Qigong’s impact on health and wellbeing demonstrate improvement in quality of life for healthy and chronically ill subjects alike.
Due to the positive impacts on stress-related problems like PTSD and depression, mind-body practices are being increasingly incorporated into treatment plans to address PTSD. Mindfulness yoga has been found to significantly decrease PTSD symptoms, and can help individuals regain both physical and psychological control. And expressive therapies, such as music, art, and dance therapy, can help people find more purpose in life. It’s no accident that contemplative movement traditions can be found in nearly all world cultures.
Though we have all had trauma exposures in our lives — for example, the global trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic — even people who don’t identify as surviving trauma can reap the physical and mental health benefits of movement and other physical habits.
Physical activities like yoga, Qigong, Tai-Chi, and dance urge us to be mindful and alert. Movement helps to restore personal agency and autonomy and strengthens our trust in ourselves and our bodies. Habitual physical activity can also reprogram neural connections and even change counterproductive or maladaptive behavioral responses.
When we’re more present and aware, we have a greater capacity to notice physiological and psychological changes, and we have more control over our thoughts and feelings.
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