A few weeks ago, my right retina detached from my eye. If you’ve never heard of this condition, you aren’t alone: I was shocked and horrified (and more than a little grossed out) when the opthamologist told me the reason I had been experiencing blurred vision and headaches. Surgery was immediately scheduled, followed by seven days of laying in bed with strict orders to stay on my right side. Although obviously thankful for medical advances that saved me from a lifetime of partial blindness, I have to admit that my gut reaction was not gratitude but exasperation.
Thoughts like, “Of course this would happen to me!” interspersed with, “My stupid body!” ran amok through my mind. Soon though, and probably due to the hard work I’ve done this year to honor my body, the narrative in my head began to change. Rather than berating myself for what was outside my control, I started using intentional statements in an attempt to reboot my brain. “My body is working so hard.” “My eye has given me so much.” “This body has been good and faithful for so long.” Quickly, I began to see results in my attitude. I had presented myself with the option of not being bitter, of choosing hope and affirmation instead, and I could feel the difference.
Does it sound crazy? It turns out, science backs up my experience. Our attitudes are molded by our words, and our view of our own bodies’ goodness often hangs on how we speak of them. In the book Words Can Change Your Brain, neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg and his co-author Mark Robert Waldman find that using positive words has the ability to change our brain pathways by stimulating our frontal lobes. On the other hand, negative words release cortisol (stress hormones) in the brain and trigger activity in the amygdala, or fear center.
I’ve known the importance of words on our psyche for some time now, but coming across this and similar research at this particular time in my life hit it home in a new—and very physical—way. I realized how little compassion I was having for my own body—much less than I would have had for my emotions or even the bodily experience of a close friend.
“Where does this antagonism come from?” I wondered. “Why do I treat my body as an enemy to be defeated rather than as an integral part of myself to be honored?” But I know I’m not the only one who does this.
Perhaps we see it most glaringly pronounced in the way we approach exercise. Rather than focusing on body appreciation and positive self-acceptance while building strength and endurance, most of us have been conditioned to see working out as a way to “whip our butts into shape” with a weight-loss focused outcome. Immersed in a culture fixated on size above health, we are destined to see our bodies as something to punish rather than something to prize. It is impossible to have compassion on part of yourself if you have been conditioned to hurl insults at it. The way we talk to and about our bodies impacts the way we see and care for our whole selves.
Reframing our thought processes earlier in life
As I’ve been exploring ideas of how to positively integrate my mind and body, I decided to try it out on my children as well. After all, if affirming self-talk is good for my mature brain, it must be good for their little still-developing ones, too. My first chance for experimentation came one night when my five-year-old was struggling to fall asleep. Frustrated that it was taking so long (and likely a bit bored with the process), he was calling me back into his room every few minutes with a new request or complaint. I was doing my best to extend support and comfort on the outside, but internally I felt my patience beginning to unravel. That’s when I remembered the new principles I’d vowed to embrace.
“Honey,” I consoled him quietly, “all you have to do is lie still. It’s not your job to make yourself fall asleep; your body will do that when it’s ready. Your job is just to let it rest and have patience. You can trust your good body to get what it needs when it’s time.”
He repeated some of my words as a question, rolling them around in his brain to see if they could be believed. When I repeated the advice again, he seemed content to try this new approach and nestled into his pillow. That was the last I heard from him until morning.
Bolstered by that success, my husband and I began looking for other areas of our family life in which to incorporate this mindfulness and bodily integration. We bought a set of mindfulness activity cards to help us lead our kids through exercises that would teach them how to calm their bodies—and were more than a little surprised by how much the boys enjoyed them. My husband, exasperated with the unmitigated chaos that is family dinner time, decided to follow the example of a community of nuns and implemented some strategies for mindful eating. Before we pray and eat, we take a moment together to look at our plates and each name one thing we are personally thankful for: the farmer who grew the carrots, the cow who gave us the beef, or the energy the bread gives our bodies to work and play, for example. I won’t claim that peace and good manners are now reigning supreme over the family table, but taking a moment to collectively connect the food on our plates with the world around us and our bodies has still been a welcome reprieve from the complaining and bickering that used to surround dinner time.
As I teach my children to affirm their physical bodies, I am also teaching myself. Believing the research of neuroscientists like Dr. Newberg, I continue to acknowledge and honor the mind-body connection that makes up my total being. On the days when frustration and discouragement set in, I am getting better about stopping myself and saying a few words of gratitude in an attempt to rewire my own brain. Not just because those around me deserve someone who impacts their presence in a positive way—but because I deserve that too. And I’m starting to believe it.
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