Mind body disconnection
Most of us grow up learning that we have to exert control over our bodies through disciplined behavior. We learned as young children to control the urge to eat when hungry. Instead we were socialized to wait until everyone was seated at the table before taking the first bite. We learned to wait to go to the bathroom between classes, because it’s embarrassing to have to ask the teacher to leave during class. We learned that repeated practice helped us to get better at skills like playing the piano and swimming.
Growing up as an Asian girl, I learned that the best way to avoid criticism was to be obedient. Smiling and nodding even when you didn’t feel like it. You had to be quiet but not too shy. You should never draw attention to yourself in any way, and always sit with your knees together. It was not okay to show negative emotions like sadness or disappointment; girls should never be angry. We definitely never talked about feelings, and crying was considered to be deeply shameful - which somehow made it all the harder to stop.
I learned early on in medical school that patient work must always take precedence over personal needs like going to the toilet or sleeping. We were taught to eat when we could even if we weren’t hungry, because hospital work was unpredictable and we might not have a chance to eat later.
In retrospect, there definitely was an overwhelming amount of work to do, but not that many actual emergencies. It was more about the hierarchy of needs - where clinically urgent tasks trumped attending rounds, and the patient’s family trumped nursing staff, and everyone else trumped my own personal or biological needs.
I had to train myself to “be tough,” in other words, to not actually have any needs.
This kind of disconnect between body and mind is surprisingly common
I couldn’t even tell you how I absorbed this hidden curriculum - it was just sort of in the ether. And because I was desperate to belong, I did whatever it took to gain and maintain approval. Unless I was physically incapacitated, I showed up to do my job with my “game face on,” which meant being completely disconnected from my body’s physical or emotional signals.
Turns out that so many cultures reward blind dedication and willingness to overwork, ignoring or minimizing self in favor of the cause. whether it be family, school, job, or whatever. So this kind of disconnect or dissociation between body and mind is surprisingly common. Just think of how often we are in awe of people who are able to build the discipline to exert control over their bodies in order to perform superhuman feats, like freedivers who can hold their breath for several minutes at a time. Our ability to endure physical discomfort is viewed as a strength.
It wasn’t until I became pregnant that I realized that my body had a mind of its own. There was an intelligence in the programming of my creature self that I couldn’t control, no matter how much I wanted to. My body just knew what it needed to do to gestate and birth a human, and what I wanted became secondary to this primal biological need that I had in common with all other living creatures.
Of course I wanted a baby, but I simply was unprepared to give up control over my body. I soon learned that pregnancy was a kind of training ground for labor, delivery, and indeed motherhood. Whatever illusions I had about control gave way to this experience of being hijacked by an alien parasite in my own body, one that had me at the mercy of its whims.
I began to learn to trust my body by seeing my tiny infant son thrive on mother’s milk
I eventually learned how to respond to and influence those uncontrollable urges to vomit, eat, or go to the bathroom, but this was definitely not the kind of control I had been used to. And when it came to breastfeeding my baby, I got to learn even more about having to compromise with my body’s needs. Every day of the first three months was a lesson in humility.
Looking back, I’m realizing how much frustration and distress I caused by resisting the lessons my body was trying to teach me in that first pregnancy. I was resisting the reality that my body had biological needs, and that I didn’t get to be in control all the time. I saw myself as being poorly disciplined and despised my own weakness or lack of control.
Ironically I didn’t learn to trust my body from any flash of personal insight, but by watching my tiny infant son grow and thrive on mother’s milk. Only then did I start to appreciate that maybe my body did know what it was doing. In that sense, my body taught me a kind of empowerment that I was able to lean into. My identity shifted from someone who had to have total control, to someone who could train and push the limits of my body, allowing for mutual respect between body and mind.
My second baby was so much easier because I was so much more open to allowing my body to do its thing. I told myself that I just had to suffer through this temporary hijacking known as childbirth and then I would eventually get control back. But the reality was that I was fooling myself. That whole “mind over matter” thing just isn’t how the mind and body actually work together.
Mind body connection
As a clinician, I have learned that the body always has its own wisdom. We would like to believe that we have control over our bodies; specifically we believe that we control our health when we exert discipline or willpower to eat right, exercise, and so on. But we have all seen examples of unexpected illness or even death, in people who were “doing everything right.”
I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t pay attention to good nutrition, exercise and sleep. In fact, I still teach that these three practices form the pillars of wellness. However I’ve come to see that there is an often invisible base on which these pillars rest, which also requires attention and discipline. I call this fourth pillar mind mastery, but it is also known as stress management or mental wellness.
I teach mind mastery as a program comprising three components:
Strength - aka discipline. We are most familiar with this component because it has to do with building and strengthening healthy lifestyle habits, and eliminating or minimizing less desirable ones.
Flexibility - aka mindset dexterity. The essence of self-coaching is the recognition that we get to choose our experience of life by being open to new thoughts and beliefs about any circumstance.
Endurance - aka mindfulness. We cultivate our emotions by intentionally choosing how to direct our energy.
We tend to think of stress management or mental wellness as being a nice-to-have or add-on component to our overall health regiment, but I would argue that it is actually foundational. Because mind mastery requires reconnecting with our physiological signals, we are able to engage and integrate mind and body.
The health and fitness culture can have a tendency to promote disciplined control over the body, engendering disconnection and even a kind of contempt for weakness or lack of control. The ideal is envisioned as always being in control, whether in sport performance, digestive health or whatever biological functions. And thus any loss of control or bodily ailments reflect weakness, causing frustration and disgust, sometimes requiring immediate and harsh remedial discipline.
What I have come to see as an Integrative Medicine specialist is that while allopathic tools are important to rule out serious conditions, they too often fall short in diagnosing more subtle or early health imbalances. And more importantly, we can often miss serious emotional or mental disturbances when we focus solely on physical concerns and fixes.
When gathering information from the patient’s history, physical examination and labs or imaging, I’ve learned to lean into the conversational connection, looking for nonverbal cues and listening between the words for what may be unsaid. Analysis and treatment are critical left brain functions, but diagnosis and healing most often come from the patient’s own right brain. Sometimes the deepest impact or transformation comes from a suggestion or question that leads them to think about or approach things differently, days or weeks after their visit.
We have such a strong societal bias towards science and left brain functions, and indeed they have proven to be invaluable in so many modern advances. But the left brain’s critical and analytic functions also lead us to judge and find ourselves lacking, which can cause anxiety or shame, ironically impairing our ability to function.
Mind mastery involves learning to tap into the tremendous potential of the other parts of our brain, the unconscious or autonomic functions that govern the body, the subconscious processing of memories and emotions, and the intuitive creativity of the right brain. Rather than narrowly focusing my mind in trying to control or ignore my bodily functions, I’m now in dialogue with all the different signals coming from my mind and body, learning to trust its wisdom.
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