In this article I want to write what I experienced through my own personal story and as well through the stories of my clients. The loss of trust in your own body. I want to point out two ways that I notice this can happen. The first one is the loss of trust after psychological disorder, mainly anxiety, because anxiety usually hits our body first. Meaning, we all the sudden feel like we are going to die. I believe all individuals with panic attacks were at some point 100% convinced that there is something wrong with their body functions. After a while they learned that they suffer from anxiety. But also having depression or other mental illness for a longer period of time can easily makes you feel that your body (brain) is broken.
The second way is losing your trust after physical illness such as cancer or different chronic illnesses. I also notice that people with anxiety mostly weren’t in touch with their bodies before anxiety happened. They learned to feel their body through therapy. But in case of physical illness this is not always the case. Never the less in both cases it feels like a huge betrayal from our own body.
How much control do we really have?
I often get the feeling that society in which I am believes that if you suffer from mental or physical illness the reason for it lies in you. For example “because you smoked you got the lung cancer”-which can be true. But reasoning like “because you work too much you got a cancer, because you weren’t vegetarian you got a heart attack” are a little too farfetched. There is always some room for improvement considering our life style. Not just in eating healthy and exercising but also in connecting to our bodies, understanding them, give them space and time to relax and heal. A lot of pressure is put to our bodies from toxins, stress, and unhealthy life style. For sure. But this is not the only reason why some diseases occur.
“Personally I knew what my body was capable of. I was the picture of perfect health and fitness and the most severe illness I ever had was the flu. I had never broken a bone or had stitches and found myself proud of that. Then, on December 27th, 2004 everything changed. I was 24 years old and I was just told that I had a precancerous polyp in my colon and had to have surgery to remove it. What? Surgery? A colon polyp? My mind was a jumbled mess of confusion. But I did EVERYTHING right AND I was only 24 years old. Isn’t colon cancer something old people get? It shouldn’t have come as such a huge shock being that my older brother was just over a year in remission for colon cancer, diagnosed at the age of 26 but it was happening to me and it was. A shock that is. “
To conclude, sure we can do a lot for our health. And of course we can get sick because we are not taking care of ourselves. That is a positive thing, because we can actually do something about it. But to believe that everything what is happening to us is somehow our fault is to extreme. Maybe we would like to believe that we have so much control but unfortunately we don’t. And probably realization we don’t have total control awakes feelings of fear and distrust in our body after illness.
Where is my old body and old self?
Whenever you are faced with illness or an injury you are also faced with change and change is hard to accept and deal with. “I once felt so strong, so invisible and now I was left feeling like a stranger in my own body. My body was different. Now I barred a scar about 6 inches from my belly button to the top of my public bone, I had a bag connected to my stomach (that I had to go to the bathroom in) and I could barely walk a quarter of a mile without feeling tired.”
It is really hard not just to adjust to our new physical appearance but also to the feelings connected with the change. Sometimes we deal with it by forcing our body to behave the way it was before. “So, I got militant, mean, and aggressive to make sure that these crazy things didn’t happen again. I tried to shame, criticize, and force my body to be something different so I could finally be back to where I was before illness!”
It is completely normal to miss our old self and our old abilities. It is normal to envy other people that still have them. The illness changes your perspective on life and brings a lot of fear-fear of dying, fear of repetition, fear of not being able to live normally, fear to never feel good again, fear of how I am going to make it, fear of taking your own life. You can feel on your own skin what it means to be unhealthy. What a tremendous change it is. A lot of people need to redefine their lives on many areas and this is not easy at all and we can’t always be in peace with our new normal. That is the reality of the situation. Sometimes the lost is so big that we are never completely fine with it.
The trust is lost
When we are surprised by illness or psychological condition the trust is broke. More so if we live a healthy life style. It feels like it caught us by surprised. Why me? I am doing everything right. “Your cancer was probably discovered when you thought you were healthy. It’s frightening to realize that you had a life-threatening disease without even feeling ill – and it is natural that you now notice every ache and pain and worry you won’t spot the signs of cancer coming back. And treatment has changed your body, so you are also experiencing a new set of strange and unfamiliar sensations.”
I’m a fitness instructor and had exercised all the way through – I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I eat healthy. I felt angry and betrayed by my body. I thought: how dare you! I’ve looked after you so well and now you’ve done this to me again. First time round I had counselling, but strangely it’s easier this time because I know what to do and how to look after myself.’
“I don’t trust my body after my cancers. No way. First I was betrayed by breast cancer and then by melanoma on the opposite side of my body. We worry about cancer coming again, and we wait hopefully for solutions—sooner, rather than later. We all want to get along with our bodies, or at least call a truce.”
“With my experience of illness came a lack of trust in its ability to heal and stay healthy. I lost all trust that it was able to do its job.”
I choose this examples because you can literally feel it how deep the betray feels and how unsure we are after experiencing mental or physical illness.
Learning to trust again
To heal your relationship with your body, you must reclaim body trust. Unfortunately for many the trust was lost way before illness. Or better said the connection was broken through well meaning parents, the medical establishment, a toxic culture, trauma, and dieting behaviors which make us less trusting of our bodies as we age. We end up turning away from our bodies. You can try to make better relationship with your body through different ways. Not all at once of course.
- I cannot stress enough that it takes a lot of time for learning a new way of existing within your body. You really need time to heal and time to adjust. It is very common that you push your body too hard to soon. “I slowly gain my strength back. I rushed back to the gym only to find myself with a hernia and back in the hospital.” It is very hard not to rush back into your old ways of existing. On the other hand it is also very hard to accept if time doesn’t help and you are not able to go back to normal. “Fitness was my life. I opened a gym and was working out and teaching classes all the time. Then I got a heart condition. At first it looked that the operation will solve everything and I will be back to normal very soon. It didn’t turn out that way. I am struggling to find any meaning in life. What will I do if not fitness? I feel mad, betrayed and lost.”
- We normally focus on what we aren’t able to do anymore. How many times I hear in my office: “Before panic attacks started, I was able to drive without a problem or I was active and running around the city all day long. Now I am afraid to go to the grocery store.” If the things doesn’t fall back to normal in decent amount of time we feel frustrated. And I agree, we need to grieve our old life as well as we can focus on what our body is able to do despite the difficulties. Something so “little” like we are able to walk or we are able to come to therapy despite anxiety counts.
- Although I don’t believe everything is preventable with a healthy life style many of illnesses and psychological disorders get better with healthy, organic eating, moderate exercise and self-care (bath, good book). “Many of us, as cancer survivors, vow to take better care of our bodies after cancer treatment, and data does show that this helps lower the risk of recurrence. I work on healthier eating and physical movement. Fear was a great short-term motivator, and I was extremely fearful. After active cancer treatment ended, though, fear was not a good long-term motivator for me. My psychotherapist says fear is not a good long-term motivator for most people. It isn’t sustainable.” Fear shouldn’t be our only motivation we need to realize that it will be quite a bit of work to maintain healthy life style and falling off the rails is something that is expected.
- Learning to listen to your body. Our body is sending us signs all the time. Mostly we ignore them because “we can’t rest now, we can’t eat now, we can’t bread now because there is stuff to do.” I love to give my clients one exercise that drill us to listen to your body more: Before you eat ask yourself how hungry you are from 0-10. After eating ask yourself again how hungry you are form 0-10. This is one example how we can start. With asking our body: “Hi, how are you, tell me what you are saying.” I suggest that you checking in regularly, acknowledging what is needed, and acting accordingly. “I was still disconnected from my body. Sure, I was eating at regular intervals throughout the day, but it still had very little to do with my actual appetite cues. It was more of a prescribed regimen for eating. Thus, I ate pretty much the same thing every day because I knew how it would make me feel, and I trusted that it was the “right” amount for my body to maintain its current weight. It was also hard when I had a food craving for something out of the norm.” The body sends us signals about its internal state. “All the discomfort and discombobulated symptoms I felt during my descent into depression and anxiety were by no means my fault but they did give me clues to what I needed in order to start healing”. This clues are not the same every day. We cannot put our body to regime-this is just another form of not listening to what it is saying. Our body will tell us what and how much of it is needed.
- I believe there is nothing wrong to go to the doctor and check if your fears (something is wrong with my body) are real. It is ok to go and check for calming your mind. It is a part of healing process and trust me with time, work on yourself and positive experiences the checkups will be less frequent. “When I am afraid of my body, I try to get reacquainted with it. I hug myself and tell myself it will be OK. When something concerns me, I allow that it is OK and rational to go see the doctor right away, especially given my history as a cancer survivor. There is no point in letting worry eat away at me. On the days that I don’t like my body, I focus on something else or face up to everything that happened and honor my scars with massage and lotion. I try to make peace with my body. It is an ongoing process for me.”
- Touch is very important. And a very good way to connect with your body. Your touch and touch of others. “I schedule regular massages and other self-care activities such as Epsom salt baths, facials and manicures.”
- Sharing your experience has tremendous power in healing process. You can speak about your experience in therapy, with friends and family or take it the step further and speak in public or teach others about what you are going through.
- Build trust by engaging your body in mental conversations about your desire for the two of you to cooperate and overcome the ailment. You can lay down comfortably and close your eyes. Imagine your body laying down. Start talking to your body in your mind and imagine what your body would answer. Listen to it and ask questions. Tell him how you are feeling and why you are hurt by it. Tell him also what you love about it. Mental conversation should be a regular thing between you two. It is like maintaining a friendship.
- Find a balance between fighting for recovery and quality of Life. Managing your symptoms and working on your recovery can be a full-time job which leaves little room for anything else. Without joyful moments it’s harder to cope with hardship and to stay motivated during the long process of setbacks and recovery. Try to nourish your soul and take the “time off” from your recovery. I am not advising to go off the diet, exercise plan, medication etc. just a couple of hours or days to refresh yourself. Take a trip, go to sauna, have a tea with a friend, help in animal shelter, make art etc.
- Practice self-compassion which involves being kind to yourself and recognizing that you’re not alone in your suffering can reduce self-blame. One way to cultivate self-compassion is to treat yourself the way you’d treat a friend going through a similar situation.
- You decide what makes your body comfortable and give your body positive experiences again. It is like you re-teach your body through pleasant sensory information. This often involves being intentional about where you take your body and what you expose it to. “I often met up with a trusted girlfriend as I recovered from the hardest stretch of my twenties, and we’d just go get a cup of herbal tea at the local Coffee Bean. With the familiar ambiance, the soothing beverage, and my dear friend’s company, I felt safe and cared for while also technically being “out and about”.”
Healing is a process, not an event. Regaining trust when it has been lost takes time and is not all that different from how we rebuild trust in any other relationship.
One thing that is very important is to realize that it is normal to feel anxious when you are not 100% if illness, cancer, asthma or anxiety will resurface. It is normal to fear the unknown. Most people get uncomfortable when they don’t know what to expect. To make your fear of unknown milder you can “prepare” yourself for it. I don’t have doomsday preppers in mind but just gathering valid information, write down in diary what you will do in case certain event happens again. Also there is a good visualization exercise that you can practice. Visualize your body in the unknown, fearful circumstances and imagine how your body is getting more and more relax.
It is important to realize that fear will come back. Yes, you can move forward and heal from the experience but that doesn’t mean that this didn’t happened. Especially in the first few years you will be triggered by news, similar stories around you and your body sensations. “Anticipating a check-up, or the news that someone you know has been diagnosed, had a recurrence or died, can bring it all back. As time passes, there are days when it goes out of your mind, but the milestones are hard.” “Fran was approaching her five-year anniversary when she found another lump. It took me straight back to a really dark place. Thankfully it was fine, but it made me realize how vulnerable I feel.”
In my practice I notice that when our outlook to circumstances starts to change two “parts of us” emerge. One is “old part”-the anxious one, the one with intrusive thoughts, have a lot of fear and distrust, doubt that things will ever change. And the “new part”-encouraging one, one that sees change and is more optimistic, the one who believes that there is a light in the end of the tunnel. With therapy, persistence or regular practice the “old part” becomes weaker. Consequently even when the fall back occurs the new part helps you to go out of anxious feelings much quicker which makes your trust in you and your body even stronger. “I’ve done a lot of soul searching, had a lot of therapy, and done a lot of work on myself over the years and I’ve made immense progress. But I have come to realize that the roots of self-doubt and insecurity are planted deep and they don’t die easily. I don’t always know what wakes those sleeping roots up, but inevitably, every now and then, they awaken. And I struggle again. I start to feel unsafe again. The ground begins to feel unsteady and I lose trust in myself again. “
When people talk about recovery from illness, they usually refer to being fully healed and getting back to normal life. But in reality, regaining your former health and resuming your activities isn’t always possible. Some suffer from health problems that cannot be cured. Recovery is not all or nothing deal. You decide what recovery means to you in a sense of realistic expectations. One thing I am sure of: working on your trust will make things better even if the trust will never be fully regained.