Chronic Illness and the Body
Befriending our physical selves
Posted October 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Chronic illness can cause us to have complicated feelings about our body.
- Trauma-informed yoga principles can improve our relationship with our body.
- Inner resources, physical safety, self-regulation, and mindful grit can be cultivated.
Broken. Decrepit. Wounded. Untrustworthy. Gross. Unlikeable. If you live with chronic illness, choose three adjectives that describe your body. I’m betting at least one of those adjectives reflects the fact that your body has been the site of pain, uncertainty, and fear. Alternatively, maybe it was difficult to come up with three adjectives because the way you cope with living in a chronically ill body is to refrain from thinking about it at all. This month’s column addresses the question: How can I live with chronic illness and actually like my body?
Befriending our bodies requires developing and nurturing a positive relationship with our physical selves. As trauma-informed yoga does this very well, I’m going to apply some of the principles underlying this discipline to living in a chronically ill body (Cook-Cottone, C., 2017).
Trauma-informed yoga emphasizes empowerment and worth. Empowerment involves celebrating what the body can do. Progress is more important than perfection. We recognize that our journey is our own and resist comparing ourselves to others. Worth involves believing that our bodies are important enough to deserve care and attention.
As someone living with chronic illness, what might you do to turn toward your body? Perhaps you want to increase movement through gentle stretching. Perhaps you want to take more time to rest or prepare and eat food that is nourishing. Ask yourself: What is one thing that my body needs right now, and how can I honor that need?
Trauma-informed yoga also emphasizes physical basics, including safety, breath, presence, and feeling. Safety is paramount in befriending the body. Check in with yourself continuously: “Do I feel safe in my body right now?” If you do not, ask yourself what you need to increase safety.
Unfortunately, pain—our body’s signal that we are not safe—is an ongoing experience in chronic illness. We can analyze our pain as follows: “Does this pain mean that I need to seek medical attention, or is this pain part of living with my illness? If the latter, what are ways that I know to decrease pain (medication, rest, heat/ice, distraction)? Can I try those strategies in an attempt to increase my felt safety?”
As in trauma-informed yoga, we can use slow, deep breathing to calm ourselves and to stay present and aware of what is happening in our bodies. Our presence can attune to our whole bodies, not just the part that is hurting. If our stomach is hurting, for example, what does it feel like to zoom our attention out and notice that we can wiggle our toes and breathe freely? We also allow in all feelings. We acknowledge that we hurt; we acknowledge that there is often an ebb and flow to the pain and the emotions that accompany it.
In trauma-informed yoga, self-regulation is prioritized. Living with chronic illness often means living with limitations and confronting a sense of one’s own powerlessness. Self-regulation—with its emphasis on choice and ownership—offers a way of pushing back against helplessness. We can find a way to connect positively with our bodies, learning to listen to their needs and respect their wishes. We can make choices in how we expend our energy; we can view ourselves as the authors of our lives, even in narrow circumstances. We can say “no” to people and situations that deplete our bodies and “yes” to people and situations that nourish our bodies.
Trauma-informed yoga values compassion and self-determination. We accept setbacks as part of our journey and use them as growth opportunities. Even as we cultivate a growth mindset with the belief that we can live meaningfully with illness, we honor the grief caused by illness and incorporate it into our sense of self. We create our own way of living in our imperfect bodies, recognizing that—even in the face of powerful obstacles—our lives are our own to live.
Cook-Cottone, C. (2017). Trauma-informed yoga: An embodied, cognitive-relational framework. International Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 9(1): 00284.