Earlier this year a fascinating study highlighted the importance of optimism and its correlation to the success of heart attack recovery.1 The study concluded that heart attack victims who displayed the most positive and optimistic outlooks were half as likely to suffer another heart attack, die, or require surgery in the four years after their heart attack as those who displayed the most pessimistic points of view. The deeper meaning behind the study is the metaphor associated with it – those with the most open hearts were best able to heal their physical hearts.
Countless studies have supported such a mind-body connection and the importance of a positive mental attitude (PMA) where it comes to health and healing. But it’s more than just a “can do” attitude that matters. As any good practitioner or mechanic knows, it isn’t just fixing what’s broken that’s essential. Ultimately, getting at the root of the problem is what matters. As the heart attack study points out, dissecting the emotional construct of our physicality is at the crux of wholeness and healing.
When it comes to health and fitness, I don’t believe in quackery or magic pills and potions. I have strong words for those who profit on false hopes without a basis of sound science. That said, it is not far-fetched witch doctor stuff to submit that the mind affects the cells in your body, in the same sense that what manifests in the body affects your state of mind. The human body is not simply a series of mechanical parts like a car, and we shouldn’t treat it like one.
The Body as a Metaphor
Thinking of the body as a metaphor is a good first step to establishing a deeper mind-body connection. For example, I recently injured my hamstring while I was performing a sprinter start as an exercise. I felt an immediate pull and partial tear of the muscle.
Some weeks later, as I was well into my physical rehab process, I had an appointment with a spiritual advisor. I mentioned the hamstring injury and she asked me where in my life I was ‘hamstrung.’ I responded by acknowledging a feeling of being torn in two directions in one area of my life. It then occurred to me that maybe my injury was more than just a random physical occurrence. Perhaps my body was subconsciously trying to send me a message about my life.
"It is not far-fetched witch doctor stuff to submit that the mind affects the cells in your body, in the same sense that what manifests in the body affects your state of mind."
Admittedly, looking in to the murky abyss of emotional trauma isn’t as easy or clear-cut as analyzing the physicality of our aches and pains. But to ignore the emotional component of our wellness is akin to looking at only half of the equation of health. Deep down many of us have that nagging suspicion that somehow the body and mind are fundamentally and completely interconnected.
Yes, accidents and random occurrences are part of life, but perhaps they too have a deeper meaning. In many cultures and spiritual traditions, it’s accepted that the physical affects the mental and that the mental affects the physical. Friedrich Nietzche famously stated, “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophies.” Yet many of us look everywhere except to the body for answers.
Metaphors for the Body and Questions for the Mind
To dig a little deeper, here are several metaphors for the body and possible key questions to consider.
Neck and Head
The meaning: Your neck literally holds up your head. Neck problems point to a metaphorical problem in holding your head up high.
Think of the phrase: “Headache”
Ask yourself: What is a headache in my life? Where am I lacking confidence?
The meaning: Outside of anatomy, another definition of shoulder is, “to deal with or accept something as your responsibility or duty.”
Think of the phrase: “Shouldering the load.”
Ask yourself: Where do I need to accept responsibility in my life?
The meaning: Problems associated with the upper back metaphorically correlate to burdens outside of your own control.
Think of the phrase: “Stabbed in the back.”
Ask yourself: What (or who) is holding me back?
The meaning: I read an interesting book some years ago titled Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno. Sarno contends that it isn’t bulging disks or inflammation that are the root cause of back pain, but instead ‘compressed rage,’ or what Sarno refers to as Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). Though Sarno’s hypothesis and treatment methods are not accepted by the mainstream medical community, in a peer review study, treatments of TMS showed a 54% reduction of pain, which outperformed other psychological interventions for chronic back pain.
Think of the phrase: “Bending over backwards”
Ask yourself: What burden(s) am I carrying around that I’ve repressed or not yet dealt with?
The meaning: Another definition of hamstring is “to damage or ruin the force or effectiveness of someone or something.”
Think of the phrase: “To get strung up.”
Ask yourself: Where am I hamstrung or limited in my ability to be effective in life?
The meaning: Hips have everything to do with flexibility and mobility. The metaphor here is obvious.
Think of the phrase: “Shoot from the hip.” (As in not thinking something through.)
Ask yourself: Where in my life am I inflexible?’
The meaning: Knee injuries are one of the most common sports and fitness injuries. According to Fox News, knee injuries comprise 55% of all sports injuries and approximately a quarter of all problems treated by orthopedic surgeons.5 Of course, we know the knee is the pivotal joint that allows for movement between the femur and the tibia. Metaphysically speaking, knees are similar to the hips. They represent flexibility and the ability to bend in a given set of circumstances.
Think of the phrase: “To be knee deep in something.”
Ask yourself: Where am I rigid and unable to bend in my life?
The meaning: Perhaps the most famous of all body metaphors is the Achilles heel. To look deeper at the meaning of the Achilles, look no further than your own strength. It is sometimes in our greatest strengths where we can expose our greatest weaknesses. For instance, will power is an incredible strength, but can also be a crippling nemesis.
Think of the phrase: “Achilles heel.”
Ask Yourself: What is my greatest strength and also my shortcoming?
The meaning: Physically speaking, it’s difficult to move in life when your feet are injured. Metaphysically speaking, standing with both feet on the ground has everything to do with having a solid foundation.
Think of the phrase: “Putting the right (or wrong) foot forward.”
Ask yourself: Where am I not taking the right steps (or where am I taking the wrong steps) in life?
Emotions in Relation to Health
Ask your doctor if they feel that fear, love, anger, and optimism influence your health and wellness and I can guarantee their answer. As studies from prestigious institutions like Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) substantiate, the mind affects the body.3
Injuries must be physically addressed, but in order to truly heal in the long run, we need to acknowledge the role of our emotional construct. The emotional meaning behind an injury might provide insight in to the root of what ails you. Looking at your injury as a metaphor can help you do that. The body serves as wise teacher on our journey to health and wholeness if we listen to it.
More like this:
7 Reasons Your Injury Is Not Getting Any Better
Injury Risk More Closely Related to Sport and Gender Than Fitness Level
Avoiding Injury: How to Train Safely for Years to Come
New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. Steptoe, Andrew, "Optimism and Recovery After Acute Coronary Syndrome: A Clinical Cohort Study” Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine April 2015, vol. 77.
2. Kubzansky, Laura D. PhD, "Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full? A Prospective Study of Optimism and Coronary Heart Disease in the Normative Aging Study", Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine Nov/Dec 2001.
3. Press Release: "Research suggests optimistic attitude can reduce risk of heart disease in older men", Harvard School of Public Health, November 2001.
4. Sarno, John E., "Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection". Grand Central Publishing, 1991.
5. Sabrina Rogers, “Top 10 Sports Injuries”, Fox News June 19, 2009.
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