Feeling Safe in Your Body


Mental Health Awareness Week is this year 13th to 19th May. For 2024 the theme is ‘Movement for Mental Health’. Movement can have a positive impact on mental wellness whether that be through running, some more gentle activity or even through fundraising for charities such as MQ Mental Health Research.

MQ Ambassador Dr Esther Beierl (pictured above) is a data scientist, trial statistician, and psychometrician in psychology and mental health research (currently University of Cambridge, previously University of Oxford), yoga teacher and personal trainer. She also has personal lived experience of mental health conditions.

In this story, Esther shares her experience of why movement has been so valuable to her mental health.

 

Do You Feel Safe In Your Body?

 

A few years ago, my brilliant therapist asked me whether I felt safe in my body. I was puzzled. I have never been asked this question.

Spoiler: I did not feel safe in my body.

This is when I realised that one of the main reasons why I was not able to recover from my mental health struggles is the lack of integration of the body into my treatments.

Compared to the so-called ‘first line’ treatments for the most common mental health conditions, such as psychiatric medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, research is lacking behind on approaches that involve the body to improve mental health.

 

Mental health struggles are not only ‘in [my] head’, which is a common misconception, but also emotional and embodied experiences.

 

Anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder cause my stress levels to be constantly high. This is due to worrying about future catastrophes, and always being prepared to run away or fight for my safety to avoid re-experiencing past trauma. When I develop panic, I am extremely tense, my heart throbs, and I assume to die. Depression causes me to experience my body as a large and heavy sack, unable to move. My history of eating disorders led to rejecting my body and incapacitating myself.

Ultimately my mental health conditions did not only make me feel as if I lost my mind but also made me feel disconnected from my body and my emotions. I was aware that I have a body, but I was not able to feel into my body. I felt emotionally numb and frequently zoned out.

The independence of my thoughts, emotions, and sensations makes it impossible to influence emotions or access sensations from a cognitive point of view. Whenever I find myself ‘stuck’ in this way, that’s the call for moving my body.

 

Freedom of Unconditional Positive Regard

 

The unconditional positive regard of my therapist provided safety for me in our therapeutic relationship.

The relationship with my therapist enabled me to explore terrains that felt terribly unsafe for me previously, such as working with my emotions and feeling into sensations in my body.

Exercise has always been a source of great pleasure for me. Amongst other approaches, my therapist and I use somatic and emotional integration techniques in our work together to enrich my exercise routines to support my mental health.

 

Science of Movement

 

There is a solid body of research showing that regular aerobic exercise and resistance training compared to no exercise does not only improve physical but also mental health.

There are fewer studies that investigated the efficacy of yoga on mental health outcomes. Meta-analyses (combining the results of multiple studies to identify overall effects and improve scientific evidence) suggest that yoga can improve depressive and anxiety symptoms compared to psychoeducation, attention-control techniques, and no intervention.

There are neurophysiological and neurochemical reasons why exercise makes us feel good. Research is lacking behind on cognitive and emotional mechanisms, that would explain why and how exercise improves mental wellbeing.

 

Move The Body, Calm The Mind

 

Aerobic exercise, resistance training and calisthenics, and yoga improve and maintain my mental health for different reasons.

Independent of whether I practice strong and dynamic or rather restorative yoga, moving from posture to posture with the breath calms me down. Even instructing a yoga class provides this effect for me.

Yoga achieves this unparalleled connection of the triad mind, body, and spirit (in whatever way spirit makes sense to the individual). I am particularly hooked by Ana Forrest’s style of yoga, which enables me to do a part of the work towards healing and growth by myself.

When I ride my racing bike or swim, I clear my thoughts, which opens me up to more creative ways of problem-solving. I increase the intensity, such as cycling or swimming faster, when I want a relief from stress or need a vent for emotions, such as anger. There is something magical for me to move my body in the water. Swimming or diving creates a feeling of weightlessness. In a symbolic way I feel the heavy burden of my mental health conditions lightening as I feel grounded and connected with nature.

Resistance training and calisthenics helped me to develop confidence and trust in myself. I also can’t deny that it feels empowering as a woman to be able to do weighted pull-ups. I feel exhilarated when I hang around upside down, for example in handstands. The purpose of training myself is neither about achieving a specific yoga or calisthenics posture, although that might be a welcome side effect, nor about working towards any other physical goal. The purpose is to focus on enjoying being in my body.

 

Non-Negotiable Meetings With Myself

 

I consider my exercise sessions as important meetings. I don’t cancel important meetings. These sessions enable me to connect with myself and my body, which, enhanced by the work with my therapist, makes me feel safe.

My movement practices have made me physically and mentally stronger, healthier, and happier. Although I still live with some of the diagnoses, I am much better equipped to deal with them.

 

Our thanks to Dr Esther Beierl for sharing her story, which makes it clear how much research can help us understand why movement is so beneficial to mental health.

Esther is fundraising for MQ mental health research during Mental Health Awareness Week (13 May to 19 May 2024) when she is teaching free yoga classes and collecting donations.

You can find Esther on social media in the following handles: X @EBeierl, Instagram: @estherbeierl, Substack: @estherbeierl

 



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