Please welcome Abigail Steidley, owner of The Healthy Life, LLC Life Coaching Services and blogger of The Vagina Dialogues as guest blogger for this week. You can read Abigail’s bio at the end of her post.
Are you feeling completely overwhelmed with doctor’s visits, research, and just plain worrying about your illness? If so, you might be ready to learn something new and exciting. I’m inviting you to delve into the world of mind-body healing, where new doors can open up to release you from the vicious cycle of worry, fear and constant symptoms. You might have noticed mind-body approaches getting more press lately and wondered how it might work for you. It’s exciting to see this upsurge of media attention for mind-body healing, because hopefully it will begin to be more mainstream and easier to access. The bottom line is, it’s very powerful. It’s high time the medical world took it more seriously.
There’s a lot of confusion about mind-body healing. Many people think that it literally means the pain is in your mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pain is real, and it is very much there, in your body! Having traveled through IC and vulvodynia myself, I am here to vouch for the very vivid presence of pain in the body. That pain was not in my mind oh, no! Not at all! The other common misperception is that if you have mind-body pain, it means it is your fault, or you created it. People talk about taking responsibility and that sounds blameful. The reality is simply that the knowledge and understanding necessary for application of mind-body healing techniques is not well-known. You can, with this knowledge, take action and be accountable for your own process, but there is no blame, no self-judgment, no fault.
The real basis of mind-body healing comes from the body’s physiologic response to the thoughts and emotions we encounter in our lives. It’s a little misleading to think of thoughts and emotions occurring in just the mind, because science has shown immediate links between thought, emotion, and physiologic responses. You already know this yourself without any fancy research if you feel incredibly sad, your body produces tears. If you feel ridiculously embarrassed, you blush.
If I think, “What if I fail?” then I immediately feel fear. Fear creates the strongest physiologic response of all; it turns on the sympathetic nervous system, which we feel within ourselves as the fight or flight response. There’s an immediate outpouring of stress hormones, digestion slows WAY down, blood pressure and heart rate increase, and muscles tighten throughout the body.
Normally, this would be very helpful, because fear is designed to kick on the fight or flight response so we can escape from danger. If you were sitting on your couch in your living room and a tiger appeared, you would need this response to motivate you to run like mad. However, in our modern culture, there is rarely an actual tiger in the living room. The tiger is in your head, in the form of thoughts: When will I be able to get such and such done? What if I don’t make enough money this year? What if my son can’t understand his math teacher who is ridiculously awful? I need to get ALL these things done before 5 pm.
This running commentary in everyone’s brains is keeping most of us in fight or flight far more than is actually healthy for the body. To make matters worse, instead of just feeling the fear, whether it’s about failure or our children or the future, etc., we end up actually thinking more fear-thoughts. This is called worrying and stressing in our current culture. With no emotional release, fear simply exists as energy within our bodies, creating more and more fight or flight response, over and over and over.
The human body is resilient, but it does have its limits. While some people tend to respond to this constant onslaught with heart problems, high blood-pressure issues, headaches, digestive problems, muscular pain, or back pain, others (aren’t we lucky!) have pelvic pain issues. The pelvic area is actually highly sensitive to the fight or flight response; in fact, almost everyone feels the need to pee more frequently when they are nervous. This is simply anatomical. The nerves in the pelvic floor are very closely integrated into the sympathetic nervous system. Almost every person has some sort of muscle tension creating low-level pain somewhere in the body. It only makes sense. With the fight or flight response continually kicking on, the muscles remain constantly tense, without the needed release of this tension via running or moving quickly with a huge burst of energy (as you would from the tiger).
So mind-body healing is not magical, wishful thinking, or New Age gobbledy-gook. It’s simply cultivating the ability to change our responses to these fear-based thoughts so that our bodies can spend more and more down time with the parasympathetic nervous system running. The parasympathetic nervous system response is commonly referred to as rest and digest. This is the part of the autonomic nervous system that floods our bodies with feel-good hormones, relaxes our muscles, allows oxygen and blood to flow freely, and allows healing to take place.
Mind-body healing is just allowing the body to do its thing, the way it knows to, without constantly forcing it to respond to the fake tiger in the living room (the fearful and other stressful thoughts).
I’ve been studying mind-body healing ever since I utilized it to get relief from vaginal pain and IC. As a mind-body health coach, I work with clients who want to try mind-body techniques but feel a bit lost. Feel free to come over and visit me at The Vagina Dialogues, where I blabber on constantly about mind-body healing, offering tools, techniques, resources, and a deeper understanding. If you’re interested, take a listen to the interview I did with mind-body doctor Dr. Schubiner to learn more of the science behind mind-body healing. Dr. Schubiner also works with people dealing with pelvic pain issues and fibromyalgia, and is currently developing new research to show the effectiveness of mind-body techniques on these syndromes.
Abigail Steidley is a Mind-Body Health Coach and author of The Vagina Dialogues (http://vulvodyniacoach.wordpress.com). She writes about her personal experience utilizing a mind-body approach to get relief from IC and vulvodynia.