Why Reconnecting With the Body Helps With Body Image
Updated: Mar 20
What does it mean to “drop into” your body, and why is it important?
Please enjoy this month’s guest #TransparentTuesday article written by Stefanie Bonastia, below!
Recently, a follower on Instagram asked me what it meant to “drop into your body.”
She said she’d read that learning how to “connect with the body” in this way could help with body image issues, but she had no idea what it actually meant.
For those who navigate the world through their thinking brains, tapping into the body to sense one’s emotional whereabouts can not only be foreign, but also potentially dangerous. Intellectualizing our experiences allows us to feel a sense of control around them, and keeps emotional reactions (like shame, fear, and grief) at bay– which can be a protective mechanism for folks who aren’t ready or able to deal with them!
But the idea of “re-connecting with the body” is a theme that comes up again and again in body image healing communities. Body image healing isn’t just about challenging cognitive distortions or processing through talk-therapy, but also asking ourselves where we feel the residual emotions in our bodies.
Examples of tuning into or “dropping into” the sensations of the body include noticing when our mind is weaving a story about the way our thighs rub together, and bringing ourselves back to our breath to regulate our heightened state of emotion… or looking at a photograph of yourself you can’t stand and noticing the butterflies in your stomach and the constriction of your chest.
The concept of reconnecting with the body to help heal our relationship with it is expanded on by a type of therapy called Somatic Experiencing (SE) developed by trauma research psychologist Peter Levine. (The word “somatic” just means “related to the body,” btw.)
According to Dr. Levine, author of books like Waking the Tiger and In an Unspoken Voice, humans store stress from past experiences in the body. These stored stressors can be big or small, acute or chronic, Traumatic or traumatic. (Trauma with a capital T might be something like abuse, an attack, bullying, an accident, etc; trauma with a lowercase t might be episodes of interpersonal conflict, family discord, parental emotional withdrawal or absence, living with weight stigma, moving, etc.)
The amount of stress perceived by the body depends on the emotional charge of the initial incident(s) combined with the amount of emotional resources that were available to cope with it. The stress cues the nervous system to engage in a cycle of “fight, flight, or freeze” that, unless processed through the body, may get triggered by seemingly unrelated events throughout life.
Let’s look at an example from my client Janine*.
Janine grew up in an environment where children were expected to be seen and not heard. Her father was prone to angry outbursts and made back-handed comments about Janine’s mother’s weight, and warned Janine that she would have to watch what she ate if she wanted to stay “trim.”
Janine’s father set the emotional tone for the house depending on his mood, which was frequently volatile. It was hard to tell what mood to be in on any given day – she waited until he came home from work to understand what the dynamics of the household would look like for the evening.
Janine spent her childhood confused between her love for her father versus her fear and contempt of his behavior. Unable to make sense of these emotions and having no indication that this wasn’t just “normal family life,” she pushed down physical sensations of anxiety (felt through frequent stomach aches) by telling herself she was being dramatic, and eventually bingeing and purging to override the vague sense of discomfort in her own skin.
When I met Janine, she was a grown adult long-since moved out of her childhood home, in a somewhat distant relationship with her family. Her eating disorder and body image issues, while never fully resolved, had resurfaced more intensely during the 2020 election, and were spinning out of control.
Janine described waking up in the morning feeling a sense of apprehension before her eyes even opened – she always knew if it was going to be a good day or a bad day by the way her clothes fit, and they seemed to fit differently everyday. She described her mood like a roller coaster, feeling light and carefree on some days, but either furious or numb on other days.
The more we unpacked, the more we started making associations between the unpredictable nature of her current days and her childhood ones, relying on an external barometer to assign her mood. The feelings of anger coupled with a desire to flee her own skin mimicked her adolescent feelings of “fight or flight” when her father would criticize her mother’s body or dominate the household with his temper.
For some people, simply exposing present-day triggers as older wounds can be enough to create significant breakthroughs. But in some cases, the nervous system disruption is so ingrained that it takes an additional layer of healing to really get at it – which is where somatic experiencing comes in.
At this point in our work, I referred Janine to a Somatic Experiencing practitioner in her area to address the dysregulation at its root. We continued our work together as she processed the stresses of her past through techniques like EMDR (Eye-Movement-Desensitization and Reprocessing), Resourcing, Grounding, and Co-regulation.
These techniques use the body’s felt sensations to create a sense of calm and safety where there was previously activation and fear.
I noticed that Janine was becoming more connected and relaxed in our sessions. She started laughing; she sat back in her chair instead of leaning forward into the screen; she spoke more slowly; she became more dis-armed.
It was as though her system was saying: it’s ok to relax and be. We’re safe.
Witnessing Janine become more “safe” in her own body demonstrates why body image work can benefit so profoundly from somatic therapies and learning to “drop into” the body in a safe way.
When our bodies absorb the emotional shrapnel of original stress, we are forced to disconnect from feeling in order to survive.
The energy of that unprocessed pain is too much to carry around and still be functioning humans in a world that barely lets us slow down to process our current stressors. So we reject what we feel, both literally and metaphorically. Instead, we learn to live exclusively in our heads, just to stay above water.
Then we blame the body itself for being too much, too out of control, too big.
And in some ways we might be right! There might be, after all, a lot of energy stuck inside us. Energy that might feel terrifying, exhausting, or overwhelming.
And this is why learning to reconnect to your body safely– to “drop in” and be present with what you feel– is both liberating and healing for so many people’s body image.
Because learning to safely tune into your body’s sensations dissolves a lot of the agitation and discomfort people feel in their own skin, that they tend to project onto (or blame on) body image.
PS: If you feel like this kind of work might benefit you, you can find an international directory of practitioners on the Somatic Experiencing website.
*Not her real name.
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