The body holds the key

Back in college, several months before I met him, my partner ended up in emergency surgery after his appendix had ruptured. Fortunately for him, it was diagnosed before it had fully burst. Unfortunately for him, by the time it was identified it had been leaking infection into his small intestines. He was lucky to be on a campus with top-notch hospital and he was good as new in a few weeks, minus a section of his small intestine and scrambling to make up missed coursework. 

Drawing a line with my finger along his scar one night, I asked him once more about the surgery. He explained that because the first few doctors he’d seen didn’t realize what was happening, the appendix had been leaking for a while. The surgeon explained that his small intestine had actually started to wall itself off from the infection, trying to protect itself from the poison. 

“Wait a minute,” I said when I’d heard this. “You’re telling me that your intestine kept itself safe for all that time by just shutting off access? Like it said, ‘Nope, you’re not good for me. Not getting in here.’” 

“Yeah, it’s kind of wild, I guess,” he confirmed. 

I was struck when I heard this, but I wasn’t exactly sure why at the time. Of course I knew that the human body had all sorts of mechanisms for self-protection. Protecting and healing itself were its core functions. Why did this seem so surreal? 

I thought over the next few weeks about what made my partner’s experience so mystifying to me, and at some point it hit me and I was filled with profound sadness. I realized that while I’d been yammering on for years about trusting our bodies, I hadn’t really – like at that deep, cellular level – believed that bodies could be trusted. 

I came to my own body distrust by journeying on a variety of paths, ones that are well worn by so many women of my generation and others. 

It culminated in my experience of infertility, what some might call – and I certainly did at the time– one of the body’s ultimate betrayals. Plunging needles into my abdomen and butt muscles, I seethed at what my body was denying me. Every failed cycle fueled the fire of my scorn, and by the time I was able to bring healthfully screaming babies into the world, I was too angry at my body to give it any credit. When my doctors told me after many futile weeks that I couldn’t produce milk to feed them, I almost laughed in resentment. Instead, I cried. 

Years before that, my body distrust had already been brewing while I’d battled with my weight throughout my childhood and teen years. When Weight Watchers pamphlets that I was reading at ten warned me that eating after 7:00pm would ruin all the hard work I’d done that day to stay slim, I dutifully finished every last bite by 6:45. I wasn’t going to let this body cause me any more heartache. 

And even by that point, less than a decade on this planet, I had already internalized the idea that our bodies are wily, scary, and disloyal things. With, perhaps, the best of intentions and the child-rearing wisdom at the time in their ears, the adults in my life had given me all the standard messaging – 

That didn’t hurt! You’re fine! 

He didn’t mean it. You’re being too sensitive. 

Just relax. There’s no reason for you to get so worked up. 

Don’t wear that. People will get the wrong idea.

My body – all bodies – were not to be trusted. At their best, they kept quiet. At their worst, they ruined everything.

When I picked up my first psychology books in the small rural library of my grandma’s hometown, I thought I’d found a loophole to this whole body nonsense: the mind! So much more sophisticated than this jiggly mass of organs and seemingly so much more controllable. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that with just a little commitment, one could shift their thinking toward productivity and positivity. Plus, no one could see it, and thus no one could judge it. Much safer, it seemed, to stay tucked in the realm of the mind. 

The fact that my mind seemed to betray me just like my body, but with depressed moods and anxious spirals, was somehow more forgivable. I stayed loyal to the mind, all the way through a doctoral program focused on how to change other peoples’. 

When, years into my career, the body started to have a renaissance and weasel its way into my precious field, I’ll admit that I tried to just ignore it. Colleagues were becoming things like Somatic Experiencing Practitioners where they would have a client focus on a single body sensation for an entire session. Psychologist friends were getting yoga teacher certificates and everyone started reading The Body Keeps the Score. We all started saying things like, “Where do you feel that in your body?” and “You might not remember, but your body does.” 

I still considered myself on the outskirts of this movement, maybe even a skeptic, when I found myself listening to researcher and therapist Hillary McBride on a podcast talking about reconstructing a relationship with one’s body. Having spent many years as an eating disorder specialist, I was well acquainted with body image work, but what Hillary was describing wasn’t about image. It was about living in and through our bodies differently. I slowed the speed of the podcast. 

She suggested a teeny tiny intervention; instead of referring to our bodies as “it,” start calling the body “she or her” (or whatever pronouns feel most authentic to one’s body). It honestly sounded a little cringey to say out loud, but I decided to give it a chance. Maybe it was now being the mother of a little girl, maybe it was other work I’d done to build compassion for myself, but what I discovered when I started internally thinking about my body as “she” – as in, she’s feeling really tired, she needs to eat before she can focus on another session, or she’s done so much for me today – was that my relationship with it/her shifted in a big way. 

I’m not going to call it sudden or miraculous, but this small tweak practiced over some time, let me start listening to my body in a new way. I couldn’t talk about her as negatively or dismissively as I once had. I began to be more curious about her experience. I started to consider that, just maybe, she may have some valuable things to share.

By the time I arrived at the Usona Institute in Wisconsin recently to complete the last part of my MDMA-assisted psychotherapy training, I’d started recognizing the value of the body in therapy in much more significant ways. Still, it seemed like something I knew was important in my mind, but still not yet in my gut. 

The MAPS researchers who were training us kept referring to what they called an Inner Healing Intelligence. This treatment, they told us, wasn’t about us as clinicians teaching or acting upon. It was about creating a relationship and the conditions in which someone’s Inner Healing Intelligence could finally heal the internal wounds their trauma had caused. As I listened, still with the skeptical and scrupulous parts of me loud in my body, I wondered how we could believe that everyone had this Inner Healing Intelligence. 

And then we started watching videos of this therapy happening in real life. What I witnessed in watching these sessions, lots and lots of them, was that when the therapists could help the patient slow down – slow way, way down – build tolerance for their experience, feel safety to do the work, the Inner Healing Intelligence would start to do its (her?) job. Whether the patient had experienced sexual abuse, had misattunement from their parents, seen the atrocities of war, or been through a devastatingly messy heartbreak, their IHI would begin to take shape and healing would be happening. Their beliefs about themselves and the world would shift. Their pain would lessen. They seemed free. 

Still a lifelong student of the mind, it was incredible to observe, but I needed to understand what was happening. I dug into the research and learned that scientists see this process as an example of the neuroplasticity of the mind and our ability to alter our epigenetics. Put as simply as possible (and worthy of so much more explanation), these treatments seem to be unlocking pathways in the brain where we had previously learned things that were hurting us (i.e. I am unworthy of love or people are not to be trusted) and letting us relearn more adaptive beliefs. When this happens, and this is maybe my favorite part, it also literally changes the way that are DNA are expressing themselves. For example, our stress response systems become less active and we regulate our emotions differently. And because this is happening at the DNA level, these changes are what can then be passed down to our children and future generations. 

As I watched what was happening in these treatments and learned why it was happening in the research, I noticed a click in my own body, an experience of things aligning in a new way. I realized that while I had truly had such reverence for our capacity to heal before, I hadn’t really trusted the body and mind to work together. I hadn’t allowed myself to believe that they could heal without a ton of intervention. I hadn’t been listening closely enough to what they were communicating. I hadn’t believed that they ultimately wanted what was best for us. But now I did. 

We have entered a new frontier in mental health, and it’s starting to feel wrong to even call it mental health. We are still treating what lives deep inside, the pain that exists mostly invisible to the naked eye. But we are, at last, acknowledging more fully the marriage of the body and mind. And even more than that, we are finding that if the body is wired to heal itself, the mind absolutely is too. 

What this means for the future of emotional healing is truly paradigm-shifting. We’ve spent the last century focused on symptoms, helping people better cope with the adversities they have endured. We’ve treated conditions like depression and anxiety as chronic conditions to manage. But what we’re discovering is that there are pathways for the body and mind to work in conjunction to address the harm at the source. 

Paradigm shifts are no easy feat, even with decades of data and beautiful neuroimaging to support them. This one will be no different. For so many of us it will require not just accepting some new scientific theories, but establishing a completely new relationship with our bodies. If the body holds the keys to healing even our most complicated emotional pain, we can no longer exile it. We will need not just make peace, but tune in in new ways. 

We’ll have to listen to her wisdom. She has so much to say.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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