Updated: Apr 30, 2020
This post is based on an Instagram Live interview with my friend and fellow therapist, Stephanie Hill, LPC. Join me each Monday at 4:30 pm on Instagram Live @riverbendtherapy as I discuss mental health topics and answer your questions with my colleagues.
Perhaps when you’ve found yourself in a difficult or uncertain situation someone has told you “let your gut be your guide” or “trust your body.” It’s sound advice—I often tell my clients to trust their bodies in the face of stress, anxiety, or fear. But many people struggle with understanding how to do it, which can lead to more frustration, anxiety, or shame.
So what does it mean to trust your body? And how do we learn to do that, especially if we’ve struggled over the years to have a healthy, loving relationship with our bodies? This week on Instagram Live, Stephanie Hill, LPC, and I dived into this topic, which is near and dear to her heart, too, as she specializes in working with people who have eating disorders.
Trusting your body is simple on paper: It means listening to the physical signals—a racing heart, a loss of appetite, sluggishness or fatigue, butterflies in your stomach—you’re getting from your body, and using them to identify your emotions, which, in turn, can help you understand things that need to be addressed or change.
But, in practice, listening to those signals and trusting our bodies isn’t always so simple. In every aspect of our busy lives, we have learned to separate from our bodies: Rather than see our bodies as part of ourselves we see them as something to battle. Whether through restricting what we eat, pushing ourselves to workout, or not resting when we’re tired, we’re often fighting the messages our bodies send us.
When we start building trust with our bodies they become not just the place we’re forced to live, but our refuge and our guide. So how do we learn to do that? Below are some highlights from my conversation with Stephanie.
1. Give Your Body an Identity
We go to war with our bodies because often we see them as objects, as “it” rather than “her,” “him,” “they,” or whatever gender pronoun we use. Sometimes we detach from our bodies to survive or cope with trauma. This is necessary, but once we’re safe we can focus on healing our relationship with our bodies. I’ve found that assigning our bodies a gender can be a powerful way to begin rebuilding that body trust. If giving your body a gender doesn’t work for you, Stephanie suggests thinking about your body like it’s a friend you care deeply about mending your relationship with. It’s been hurt through action or inattention; now ask what it needs and listen with gratitude and empathy.
2. Do a Body Scan
Take a moment every day to tune into your body. Find somewhere quiet where you can be alone and ask your body, “How are you today?” Then listen: Your body will tell you what it needs. It may say, “I’m tired,” “I’m hungry,” “I feel energized,” “I feel good today.” Listen to what it’s telling you without judgment or criticism. Once you get used to that practice, you can take it a step further by starting a body dialogue journal in a notebook, or on your phone or computer. At whatever frequency is realistic for you, take a few moments and ask your body questions, almost as if you were texting a friend. Start with, “How are you today?” and then carry on the dialogue from there.
3. Kindness Is Authentic
A common question we get from clients as they’re learning to tune into their bodies is, “How do I trust that the part of me I’m listening to is the authentic me?” The answer is beautifully simple: If the voice you’re hearing is mean, it’s not your authentic voice. “We learn meanness,” Stephanie explained. “We learn the critical thoughts and voices that drive so many of our relationships. There’s so much in our culture that supports and reinforces that.” So if you’re feeling tired and ask your body what it needs and it tells you, “You need to stop being lazy,” have no doubt that’s not your authentic self talking! Tell that voice to take a hike, and then ask your body, “OK, tell me what you really need.”
4. Look for the Neutral Truth
It’s almost impossible to go from constant negative self-talk to positive self-talk overnight. But it is possible to move to a neutral truth first, thereby allowing yourself space to break established patterns and build new healthier ones. If, for instance, you’ve been struggling to meet goals for healthy movement, when negative self-talk creeps in, banish it by listing out all the ways in which you have been moving recently. (“Yeah, I didn’t go for a run today but I did walk around the block a few times, and it felt great.”) Neutral truths can also look like focusing on your strength or resilience, and finding things to appreciate about your body—especially the parts of it you struggle to accept.
5. Adopt a Mantra
In times of turmoil, I tell myself the following: I can trust my body and my mind to work together. I repeat this mantra while I’m falling asleep or out on a walk or taking care of chores. This belief has been reinforced by action—by times I let my choices be guided by my body’s instincts and messages—but simply repeating the mantra has often given me the confidence I needed to feel like I could trust my body. It has become one of my deeply held truths, a powerful way for me to calm my mind and feel safe and at home in my body. Because, as Stephanie said, “My body knows what’s true, my body has its own story, and I can trust it to tell me what I need.”
Your body has something to say to you. Will you listen today? And how will you respond?