Is your body talking to you? 

Understanding what our bodies are saying using the IFS therapy model

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash 

Our bodies play a significant role in processing and remembering major life events. When we experience challenging circumstances, the biophysical ecosystems within our body undergo major changes. For instance, during stressful situations, the endocrine system that regulates hormones like cortisol, is highly activated. This higher activity effects the cardiovascular system, increasing heart rate and causing stronger heart muscle contractions. Meanwhile, higher stress also leads to increased muscle tension and shortness of breath. In this way, a psychological phenomenon such as stress can have significant impact on the physiological systems within the body. 

Although the body can return to balanced functioning after short periods of stress, repeated stress can cause an imbalance in the neural circuitry. This imbalance consequently effects related immune and metabolic functions*.  For example, stress-induced chronic muscular tension is associated with migraine headaches. In the cardiovascular system, long term stress increases the risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke. The functioning of male and female reproductive systems, including the production of sex hormones, are much lower at higher levels of chronic stress. 

Therefore, it is clear, that our bodies take a big hit when exposed to long term stress**. But what does this mean? Are we just doomed to live with the negative impacts of stress on our bodies? Fortunately, there are possible mechanisms for repair and damage prevention. These mechanisms involve embracing the inseparable, yet oft-ignored relationship between our minds (the psychological, emotional and spiritual) and our bodies (the somatic and physiological). I find great promise in techniques that establish connections between our psycho-spiritual and our physio-somatic domains. Within the framework of IFS therapy, this means cultivating a strong connection between our true self, our minds and our bodies. 

Such techniques, that can alleviate the harm endured by the body from chronic stress, could be operationalized through methods that make conscious connections between mind and body. For instance, we could remain curious about what it is about a situation or life circumstance that is stressful and notice which parts of our psyche and our body are activated. In this way, we can begin to consciously impact an otherwise escalating mind-body feedback loop.

For example, let's imagine that you have an important meeting coming up. How could you alleviate the stress induced mind-body feedback loop that occurs as a result? As a practice, you could turn your attention inwards and see what is happening within your mind-body system. Which parts of your psyche are triggered as you plan for this meeting? Are there parts that feel nervous, not good enough, inarticulate, ineloquent, unintelligent, or lazy? Are there parts that believe that something is about to go wrong? Or parts that feel like an imposter?

Getting to know these psychic parts, their perspectives, memories and beliefs is the first step in the therapeutic journey of IFS. Like a curious investigative journalist, we begin to unearth the stories held by each part. This compassionate search often unearths nuances of their psychic makeup, that may have previously eluded us. As more parts emerge, many of them show themselves as somatic experiences - a tingling in the knee, a heaviness in the neck, heat in the lower back, pain in the shoulder, tightness in the chest. Although the mechanics remain a mystery, it seems as though some psychic parts exist in some form or another inside or around our bodies. And consciously relating to these body sensations can take us deeper into our inner work, as tapping into this somatic memory can help undo many of the psychological knots that we live with.

Photo by Olenka Kotyk (right) on Unsplash 

* If you're interested in how stress affects our bodies, our geeky parts highly recommend Robert Sapolsky's 'Why Zebras don't get Ulcers”

** APA article on chronic stress and human body