Several years ago, I started to feel stuck as a therapist. I found many clients desired change, but instead, continually cycled through self-sabotaging behaviors or felt suffocated by shame.
“What is it?” They wondered to me aloud.
Don’t I want it enough? Am I not praying enough? Not enough faith?
I observed traditional talk therapy was helpful to an extent, but many people knew all about change and yet didn’t know how to experience it. I also discovered this was no different for Christians than it was for my non-Christian clients. In some instances, it even meant Christians were harsher toward themselves because they believed they should be healed already.
Often, their self-critique was relentless.
After continuing in my own personal growth as a person and therapist, I began seeking additional training in trauma and body-centered perspectives. Here is what I found: People don’t actually want to be stuck!
(Surprising, I know.)
Instead, many folks are caught in the well-worn neural pathways of a brain and body that doesn’t know how to change. Often, people find themselves coping with situations the best way they know how.
Additionally, almost all of my clients were living with what is called little ‘t’ traumas—disturbing events that don’t qualify as full-on PTSD—but still left their body and nervous system hijacked. This in turn also kept their body and mind responding in the same way, even when they wanted to change. I began to see that for most of my clients the stuck-ness was never about lack of effort—but the way they were trying.
As a therapist, I’ve found a holistic perspective of mind-body integration has allowed clients to move toward growth in a more sustainable way. Here are three ways you can integrate it with faith, too:
Embrace an Incarnational life
Jesus came to us in flesh and blood (John 1:14)—though He could have chosen any way He pleased. This reveals something important about God’s view of our bodies. It means they matter. It also tells us we don’t need to view them as simply shells for our spirits but instead as part of our essential humanity.
From this posture of understanding God doesn’t simply care about part of us, but all of us, we’re more likely to care for ourselves well, too.
In a sense, this work honors what it means to be human and the incarnational life we are called to in Christ. It is not just our spirits that experience God, but our bodies too. This mind-body perspective looks at more than a person’s logical and cognitive brain, and instead looks to integrate baseline functioning like breathing, safety and body posture.
All of these functions can be related to our nervous system, and when it becomes dysregulated, we can find ourselves knowing the right answer but unable to act on it. Practices like centering prayer, yoga and mindfulness help us to abide in our bodies and stay awake to an incarnational life.
Lean on Your Resources
The Book of James tell us, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above” (1:17. From a neuroscience perspective, this includes parts of ourselves that have grown resilient and strong through experiential knowledge. This change can happen because of a phenomenon called brain plasticity, which essentially means our brains are capable of adapting.
Remember the time you stood up for yourself, even though your cheeks were burning and your heart pumped fast? Do you recall when you changed a tire on the side of the road as the rain poured? Or what about when you felt God’s presence with you as you wept?
Each of these experiences is now recorded in the neural pathways of our brain and body and can be accessed by recalling the memory. Psychiatrist Curt Thompson discusses the importance of “paying attention to what we’re paying attention to.” This means, as we notice, or give our attention to something, we have the ability to reflect and leverage our strengths for future situations too. Neuroplasticity becomes even more helpful to us as we notice it’s happening.
So, the next time you are facing something intimidating or scary, recall a time you did something that helped you feel capable or strong. Allow yourself to sense the depth of your breathing, the sensations in your body and remember God’s nearness with you. Consider what it felt like to be successful in that situation and give yourself permission to use that same experience to help you prepare. The experiential knowledge in our body gives us resilience and resources as we look to try new things.
Rest is Part of the Program
Good therapists and athletic coaches have at least one thing in common: They understand rest is essential to a healthy body and spirit. We can’t break down our muscles without letting them have time to build back up; otherwise they’ll deteriorate—it’s simple physiology. Jesus, too, modeled and encouraged rest. He often went away alone to pray or sleep (Luke 5:16; 8:23).
For many of us, we love the idea of rest. Hypothetically, we can see why it matters. We know God set aside a Sabbath on purpose and with our best in mind. But in reality, many of us frequently disregard what our bodies, minds and spirits tell us about how fragile we are. We push past bedtimes, ignore exhaustion and over-schedule ourselves. Which, if we’re honest, is incredibly easy to do in our over-stimulated culture.
And yet, if we were to give ourselves permission to actually listen to the limits of our body and the loving command of our God, we may find the wisdom of experiencing our fragility freeing. Indeed, we may find rest is more than a good idea.
Learning to cultivate a mind-body-spirit connection is vital to a Christian life. The next time you’re tempted to stay stuck in your brain, remember God created us to be fully alive.