How do we know what we feel? Do we get butterflies in our stomach that tell us we’re nervous? Do our palms sweat when we’re afraid? Do our shoulders tense when we become stressed? All the time, we’re unconsciously connecting our physical feelings with memories and language to make sense of what’s happening to us. Our bodies and senses feed into our understanding of our world and show us what to do.
It’s about survival. When humans were primeval hunter-gatherers, the roar of a lion scared us. If we ran away, we stayed alive. And yet increasingly we rationalise our bodily feelings or ignore them, often at our peril. Ironically, when we have emotional issues the traditional cure is to talk about our feelings, to name them and try and problem-solve them. But this is not always successful as mind alone is not enough. We need to engage our bodies.
As a creative arts therapist and someone who works with children, I’m amazed again and again by power of the body and preverbal processing. I rarely talk directly with the children who come to see me with anxiety, stress and social and emotional challenges. Instead, I engage them through their bodies and through play. So often I see when a child feels strong in their body and able to take risks swinging across my gym, problem-solving through playful imagination of climbing, swinging, falling and surviving, their self-confidence grows, and they learn to feel strong to take on the world. Similarly, when a child creates something beautiful with their hands in my art room, they learn that they have some control over their world. They feel this deeply and intuitively, and transformation happens. It’s not discussed, it’s not rationalised or often vocalised, but it is felt deeply and embodied. In their eyes, I see self-confidence emerge, and in this process their thoughts about themselves change.
To find out more about these ideas, do read Bessell van der Kolk’s excellent book The Body Keeps the Score, and read around the theory of Neuro-Linguistic Processing (NLP). The mind is just a part of the body—so why would we think of them as separate?