Elizabeth Nyblade, Ph.D.
Gateway Centre
1313 E. Maple Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
P: 360.647.8295
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  Question :
  I have real physical problems. How could talking to a counselor help with those?
 Answer :

The mind and body are intimately connected. You live through events and have thoughts and feelings that constantly affect your body in positive and negative ways. We even talk about our feelings in a physical way. We shake with fear, get a dry mouth from stage fright, blush with shame and get a sinking feeling in our stomach from guilt. We say that difficult encounters with people give us a headache.

Our body comes complete with an emergency response system, the Autonomic Nervous System. When we think something is dangerous our body prepares for “fight, flight or freeze.” We aren’t born knowing what is dangerous, however. We rely on our brain, our thoughts, to tell us what and where the danger is. Even though we aren’t really expecting our boss to physically strike us, our brain tell us that when the boss is angry, we are in danger, so our bodies make preparations like tensing muscles, drying our mouth, stopping our digestive processes. All of those are real physical reactions to a real danger.

Our emergency response system is wonderfully efficient, and hard to fool. You can tell yourself you aren’t nervous about an upcoming job interview, but you will probably have a dry mouth anyway, no matter what you say to yourself. In fact, not paying attention to your nervousness makes the physical problems worse. You may tell yourself you’re calm, cool and collected about an upcoming stressful event, but your emergency response system may still be ringing all the alarm bells. And because you don’t think you should be nervous or upset, you won’t act in ways to reduce your stress because you think you shouldn’t be having it in the first place! It’s hard to fix something when you don’t think it’s broken.

But our bodies are really built for sudden emergencies that disappear very rapidly – like the appearance of a saber-toothed cat ahead of us that we can outrun. The emergency response is built in, but calming ourselves down after the danger has passed isn’t automatic. And what if the danger never passes? What if the boss is always angry, or always angry at you, or what if the boss is unpredictable and inconsistent? And it’s worse if you learned as a child that an angry parent meant a hurtful parent.

And that’s why talk therapy can help with physical problems. Our thoughts, feelings and experiences, can cause physical problems, or make them worse. If you blush when someone tells a dirty joke, you know you’ve had a physical reaction to a mental event. If there were some reason that blushing was bad for your body and it got worse over time, you might want to learn not to have a blushing reaction. There would be two ways to go about this. (1) You could learn to consider talking or joking about sex not embarrassing, and that’s exactly the sort of learning you do in talk therapy, or (2) you could learn not to have a face-flushing reaction when you’re embarrassed, and that’s also possible in talk therapy by some mind-body methods like relaxation or biofeedback.

Let’s assume you had a shoulder injury in a car crash. You have real pain from that injury, and it doesn’t seem to go away over time. How can talk therapy help with pain? Counseling helps in those same two ways. (1) You can learn to focus on the things that are stressful and bother you, and work through them mentally so you solve the unsolved issues that are causing you to tense up and make your pain worse and (2) you can reduce the pain directly by learning to relax, including even relaxing the shoulder when you’re in pain. Either or both of these methods can reduce your very real physical pain. Most people underestimate how big an effect the mind has on the body in everyday life. Pain isn’t ‘all in your head’ but your head can certainly do a big job of managing it.

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Gateway Centre • 1313 E. Maple Street • Bellingham, WA 98225

Telephone: 360-647-8295

Fax: 360.647.8296

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