How to start on the path from numbness to mental wellness.
by Joanie Connors
Healing is a natural process by which bodies, minds and other organic systems repair the wear and tear of life's stresses, accidents and abuse. Whenever we are hurt or damaged, the healing process begins a cycle of restorative phases that unfold as long as conditions support recovery. The phases in this process lead us through the cleansing, resting, rebuilding and reusing periods that our body, mind and spirit need in order to overcome what has happened and resume our lives.
There is still much about psychological healing that is a mystery, but we know that there is a strong connection between physical healing and psychological healing. Research has shown that physical and psychological well-being interact so that stresses and hurts in one affect the other, as when deep grief (e.g., loss of loved one or a long-held job) often leads to physical illness. Also, the stresses of physical illness are frequently connected to relationship difficulties, even divorce.
We may discover strategies for psychological healing through exploring processes that work with physical healing. Both physical and psychological healing require cleansing (removing any residual harmful elements), rest, relief from additional stressors, and nurturing to rebuild what has been torn. Without at least some of these facilitating conditions, injuries and illness will often worsen or leave ugly scars that still cause pain.
Psychological healing has become challenging for many individuals in so-called "developed" cultures such as ours because we have become alienated from natural cycles. We have also forgotten how to listen or respond to what is happening inside us, and this has led many of us to be overstressed and overtired, and neglectful of those psychological needs (as well as many other aspects of our lives).
One such problem is that it is often difficult to know when we are emotionally injured so that we can respond appropriately and provide healing conditions. Many people report not realizing the negative impact of an event on their emotional well-being until hours, weeks or even years afterwards.
Numbing Life's Pains
Much of our psychological coping appears to be aimed at numbing the pains of life, instead of examining them. Obviously, drinking, drugging, smoking and overeating are common ways that we numb the pain of our difficulties. These popular methods help us to avoid our pain, but they contribute additional harm (e.g., physical illness, relationship damage) to the original hurt we are trying to cope with.
Some less overtly destructive ways to numb our pain and distress are through distracting ourselves with things like television, the Internet, exercise, shopping and overworking. These activities are not damaging in themselves (except possibly television, which can have terrible health effects), and may even be helpful to us at times, but they become harmful if overused, and/or if substituted for dealing with problems that arise. Distractions can also become addictions that, like drugs, make us blind to things that matter, such as relationships with our loved ones or our career.
We are always at a disadvantage when we are cut off from our feelings.When distractions numb us from our discomforts, they also prevent us from taking measures to address them in healthy ways, like talking to our loved ones, cutting back on stressors and negative influences, and thinking about what might need to change in order to have a better balance.
A Fighting Spirit
The state of our inner spirit, known by medical personnel as "will to live" or "fighting spirit," is also a factor in healing. Doctors and nurses have long noted that there is a great deal of difference in the amount of "fight" that is shown by different people when trying to overcome cancer, heart disease, infections or physical trauma (wounds, broken bones). This will to survive frequently means the difference between life and death when people are confronted with a devastating illness or injury.
A fighting spirit also makes a major difference in much of psychological healing. This is most evident with trauma victims, where it is one major factor in whether someone recovers or falls into long-term depression after suffering a terrible hurt. Fighting spirit also seems to be a factor in recovery from psychological illnesses such as substance addiction, depressive disorders, learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, and even aggression.
It makes sense that when we are weighed down by hurt and grief about the past, or worries about the future, that would weaken our psychological energy for the recovery process. The drive to heal requires a positive outlook, a belief that we can accomplish our goals or that our lives will come to good if we recover. We have to believe we matter and that our healing matters.
To restore a fighting spirit requires reconnecting to what is good in our lives, whether that be rediscovering our purpose (good work, using a skill) or rebuilding relationships, whether family, spouse or friendships. If our self-esteem or faith in our self-worth has been damaged, that is important to restore. If we are constantly beaten down by minor problems (financial, job, physical), then we may need some time away from our troubles in order to reconnect with our fight.
For many of us, it also helps to make time for restorative activities to nurture our spirits. These can include healthy exercise (walking, yoga), artistic expression (painting, crafts), musical expression (singing, dancing), working with nature (gardening, nature walks), or immersion in beauty (visiting art galleries, visiting beautiful places). Some also believe that water has restorative powers, so they take long hot baths, go swimming or sit next to the ocean or a flowing stream to heal their spirits.
The Second Key: Awareness
The second key to healing ourselves is listening to what is going on inside of us, via our hurts, stresses and other feelings, so we are aware of our internal state and can respond to it. By hearing the highs and lows and incongruities of our inner experiences, we can respond compassionately to give ourselves what we need, and give energy to the ongoing healing cycles of our complex lives.
Listening to our feelings does not mean giving power to the negative thoughts that often come with them, because that would make us sink into a pit of despair after every unpleasant conversation or gas price rise. It's important to separate bad feelings from negative thoughts and to see that negative assessments are not necessary, and can be quite harmful. Negative thinking adds catastrophic expectations, repulsive motives and dreadful outcomes to our mostly mundane troubles, making them seem impossible to solve. Try seeing the sensations as data that something needs addressing, and look for a different way to respond.
So much of life is unpredictable and frightening that we often guard our hearts with predictability and habits. We often don't want to be aware, because it makes us sense our difficulties more acutely, and see how complicated and conflicted life is. It's so much easier to zone out!