Sometimes I find it odd to hear about ‘mental health’ as separate from physical health. We hear about it on the news often now – how so many patients seen by GPs are there because of mental health, or how so much less is spent on mental health than other NHS departments. These issues, among others, are concerning and perplexing. To my mind, so much of our mental health state is linked to our physical health, and vice versa.
We – our experiences, our muscles, our emotions, digestive system and memories – all inhabit one space. Our bodies do not so rigidly separate thought and emotion from physical sensations. They may confine these things to certain spaces, but like rooms in a house, they all have an impact on the mood and wellbeing of the whole.
In my most recent counselling training session, we began learning about Transactional Analysis (TA). I must admit, having done a bit of background reading on the subject, I wasn’t completely enamoured with the diagrams, or the Freudian ‘we are all made up of three parts’ talk. Nor was I thrilled by the numbers squatting next to the letters, so alarmingly reminiscent of the periodic table that glared at me from the wall in GCSE Science yet refused to impart its secrets...
How wrong I was.
Reading about TA gives you a dry, lukewarm knowledge that doesn’t exactly excite the senses (at least, that was my experience). Being taught the theory by a couple of experienced psychotherapists, however, paints a very different picture. Suddenly the formulas and prescriptions became human. There was no need for persuasion or elaborate teaching methods, the class sat rapt with the respective blobs of Parent, Adult and Child drawn on the board. And this was just the beginning.
Inevitably, learning about what makes us ‘us’ provides a very interesting lesson. It’s personal from the start, which is fascinating, but also pushes some buttons. We were warned from the outset that TA might be difficult for us to learn about. Unsurprisingly, memories and feelings spanning from childhood to the recent past flashed uninvited and somewhat forcefully in my mind. As we stopped for a break most of us looked weary as we got up from our seats. That tea break was a particularly thoughtful one, as we shared knowing looks over our cups and whispered to each other, ‘did you find that hard too?’ We discussed it to some extent, and it was obvious that we had all experienced some discomfort. It had certainly touched a couple of nerves for me.
The topic deepened and we began to explore the link between emotions and physical feelings. While looking in depth at the part of ourselves called Child, we were asked if we could think of any examples where we felt the presence or expression of our inner (somatic) child. I shared an example with the class I thought was relevant: when I feel anxious or stressed, one of the places I see it is in my stomach. It balloons. Bloats up and stays put. It’s uncomfortable and annoying when it comes to fitting into trousers, but I am grateful that it happens because I know what it’s telling me. I call it my stress belly – my rotund alarm bell that tells me when something is causing me stress and I need to take care of myself. I wasn’t sure if I was on the right lines but my tutor smiled gently and nodded, ‘Yes, the stomach is very important,’ she said. I got the feeling there will be more stomach-related learning later in the course. We were then given a case study to discuss where the client had physical symptoms – migraines and back pain – along with struggling to ask for support. These problems were the cause of the internal conflict in their Child.
All of this got me thinking about how we react to situations, people and environments. How it’s not just our emotions that change but our bodies too. Panic or anxiety attacks are prime examples of our thoughts and emotions escalating, and manifesting themselves in physical symptoms. On the other end of the spectrum, when we feel comfortable in someone else’s company we can feel ourselves relax; our limbs soften, our breathing slows. When we’re stressed, we hyperventilate, and when we’re embarrassed we blush. This isn’t new, of course, we know all of this. But it makes me wonder about how we separate the mental and physical so often, especially in health. Would it not be better to see ourselves as all one, something whole? Our physical conditions can affect our mood; our mood affects our physical health. I know from personal experience that when I’ve done too much and I have an ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome crash, my mood plummets. I can’t tell you why, but it’s something I’m aware of, and somehow that awareness helps me to settle and I feel better. So maybe that’s something that could benefit everyone, just noticing, stopping still and listening to ourselves. Ask yourself, how am I feeling now? How is the feeling affecting my body? What emotion is connected to this physical sensation? Counselling is all about thriving, learning our potential and growing up to reach it. My belief is that the body is always striving to be its best; it will always heal when it can. Our bodies and minds have much in common, and once you start to notice, you’ll see them interacting, working together, helping you to find your true path and be your best self.
Kate Eve Smith lives and works in Northumberland where she is studying for a Diploma in Psychotherapeutic Counselling. She spends much of her time exploring the county's wilderness and coastline, and on colder days puts pen to paper. Follow her on Twitter @KateEveSmith.