Dr. Jeff Kane: Body/mind language
We’re all familiar with “body language,” our innate practice of expressing ourselves wordlessly, however unconsciously.
We fold our arms and cross our legs when we feel defensive. We recognize winks, grimaces, and raised eyebrows as statements. Vocal tone communicates feeling as much as words do, and often more reliably. We express emotions in the form of sweat, aromas, pheromones, and who knows what else. Hardly any behavior, no matter how unconscious, is accidental. You might even say we’re fleshy antennae continually broadcasting meaning.
Body language isn’t only social. For example, repetitive movements actually help shape us. The bowling arm grows larger than its mate. Hikers’ leg muscles expand, and those who no longer walk suffer atrophy. Slouch through your adolescence and, like your mother warned, you might become that posture. Mark Twain observed, “After the age of thirty, you’re responsible for your face.” The medical word for body shape, “habitus,” seems a peculiar choice until we realize that our shape is in part crystallized habit.
Consider that body language extends all the way into physiology. If a frown is a message, so might be a quickened heartbeat. If slumping signifies depression, plummeted immunity might announce overwhelming stress. Seen this way, a patient’s body might not be just a physiologically disordered “sack of enzymes,” as one of my professors put it, but the mind’s expressor as well. Once I see my patients at least in part that way, my practice style will definitely shift.
However reasonable all this sounds, medicine isn’t going to stampede in that direction soon. For one thing, current docs haven’t been trained in body-mind concepts. And most patients fear that even mentioning the influence of their mind on their body labels them as “psychosomatic.” Too bad, but that word has come to mean popularly that their disorder is imaginary, it’s “all in their head,” they’re neurotics, hypochondriacs, or outright fakers. We’ll start moving toward accepting body/mind integration, though, when enough of us ask of our symptoms, “Might my neck pain be a kind of body language?”
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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