Of course Simone Biles’ mental health affected her body also. That’s what extreme stress does. Our mind and body are one system. In our culture, we try to treat them as two distinct things, but abundant research shows that they’re intimately interwoven and inseparable. It is because of Simone’s tremendous physical and mental strength, that even as her system was being strained to the brink, she is such a rock star athlete that she was still able to land safely enough so as not to incur major physical injury. Incidentally, if she had walked off of that Olympic stage limping from a broken leg, I believe we all would have gotten it. But because her injuries were unseeable, she has received unforgivable disbelief, minimization, and ultimately hate. I was so impressed to see Simone, once again as the champion she is, doing something many of us don’t—this time it wasn’t a triple turn in midair, it was recognizing her mental and physical stress load was dangerously high and responding to these facts quickly.
It deserves to be celebrated, not scrutinized, that Simone treated her mind-body system as one, and knew that the “off” feeling she experienced emotionally and mentally at the start of this summer’s Olympic games represented system-wide vulnerability—her mental, physical, and emotional health were all at stake. Sometimes we treat ourselves like pushing is the answer. Or we heed the old adage, no pain no gain. My research has shown me that if we’re measuring well-being, when there is ongoing mental and physical pain, the gains cease.
Luckily for us, our body has an intricate system of communicating to us through body sensations, mental responsiveness, and emotional affect when things are out of balance and need our attention. We can’t see these cues; we have to feel them—but they are every bit as significant as any torn rotator cuff or ripped tendon. However, this sophisticated communication network of sensations and emotions is only effective if we pay attention to it. Overriding our internal instincts—ignoring a gut instinct to leave (that party, job, relationship); dissociating from that impulse you had to cancel (that meeting, trip, dinner); and yes, disregarding that pull to withdraw from a competition that we just knew would be putting us in harm’s way—is a survival skill that many people with a history of extreme stress and trauma master. If intolerable experiences are part of everyday life, e.g., sexual abuse by your doctor, living with a substance-abusing parent, and spending your earliest month in and out of different foster homes—as is the case for Simone—overriding your bodies cues to react becomes essential to survival. Most of us have our own overwhelming historical imprints that caused us to override; it’s a universal instinct that we all have. And in Simone’s case—possibly yours too—it’s not just her internal cues pulling her toward override, the armchair judges and chat show critics from around the globe are all but demanding she ignores her instincts and instead do what they want of her.
When any of us ignore our mind-body cues and continue to send ourselves into overwhelming situations, we pay a price. One high and yet too common price is resetting your body’s baseline of stress reactivity—raising your “resting level” so that you are actually at a fairly high-stress level for just normal everyday things. If we maintain a high stress level for normal everyday things and then need to perform in truly stressful situations, like say the Olympics, our stress levels can be so off the charts that they are totally unmanageable for our mind-body system. And something like the “twisties” is what the strongest among us might suffer from. Many of us would experience panic attacks, chronic insomnia, migraines, irritable bowels, social anxiety, and on and on. These aren’t injuries you can see, but they are injuries nonetheless, and they require rehabilitation like any other injury does. In our current environment, common stress events like monitoring the news for virus infection levels, extended working from home or not working at all, or simply trying to maintain some normalcy for ourselves and our families can be plenty enough to raise our “resting baseline” to not-so-resting after all.
When any symptoms of extreme stress occur, the very best thing we can do is step back, slow down, listen to our body’s cues, and take care of ourselves. We all need this. As a stress researcher, it’s no surprise to me that even our world-class athletes—masters of stress resilience—are also feeling the weight of the global stress events. And of course, the rest of us are struggling as well.
Reclaiming the ability to respond to your mind-body’s self-preservation instincts is a vital and to-be-celebrated part of healing extreme stress and trauma. What a tremendous example of self-awareness and responsiveness Simone gave us, to her body-mind’s cues. What a tremendous example of her “getting back what Larry Nassar took from her,” as she said she planned to do.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to get to know our unique mind-body systems, learn the language of our intricate internal communication systems, and invest in resilience building. The Mind-Body Stress Reset offers many tools and easy exercises for building your resilience gently, with brief practices that can be done anytime and anywhere.
Rebekkah LaDyne, MS, SEP, is a somatic therapist, researcher, mind-body skills educator, and author. She is a member of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy. Based on her extensive research in mind-body medicine at Saybrook University, her comprehensive training with the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute, and her more than two decades of work in the field of embodied well-being, she developed the mind-body reset (MBR) protocol. Rebekkah has supported thousands of people, beginning from within her own wellness center, to groups she taught at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and while traveling to worldwide destinations offering workshops and retreats. She has recorded several wellness CDs, appears on the radio and YouTube, and meets with clients online from all over the globe. She is in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She can be found online at www.rebekkahladyne.com.