Self-Care: Get Embodied

by Rhea St. Julien

In his work as a trauma therapist and researcher, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk makes a case for movement in the face of traumatic events. He states in his seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score, that the survivors of Hurricane Katrina who were able to go out and clean up from the flood had far fewer symptoms of PTSD than the ones who were kept immobile in the Superdome. I have thought of his work often in the months after the election, especially when I mobilize to go to protests and “vote” with my feet.

Today we are going to focus on the self-care of movement. This means taking physical action, like attending a protest or engaging in civil disobedience, but it also means taking care, through exercise. The number one thing I work on with my patients is body connection. We are a culture cut off from our embodied selves, with nothing but a profile picture to show for it. We pay a great price for being in our heads, and for the self-expression afforded us by technology. Much of the suffering I see that manifests as anxiety and depression can be lessened by incorporating movement and exercise into one’s daily routine.

The problem is, we’ve been sold a great lie by the exercise industry. It has linked exercise to weight and weight to worth. So, many of us are intimidated by exercise because it is associated with trying to change our body shape. I want to stress this as we begin discussing exercise: The kind of movement I am purporting here is NOT in the goal of losing weight, making yourself smaller, or gaining a traditional ideal of “health.” Rather, this is about connecting the body and the mind.

I ask my patients, and myself, to do one thing for body connection every day. This could be a 20-minute stretch when you’ve been working at the computer for hours. It could be a walk during which you don’t look at your phone once, and simply focus on how the earth feels beneath your feet. It could be furious dancing in your kitchen. Meditations that focus on the body but do not require movement at all also count.

Or, indeed, it could be the forms of exercise our culture puts on the front of magazines: weight lifting, running, yoga, etc. But it does not have to be. Start small, and make the goal of once a week at first. It took me years to get up to exercising every day. Now I wouldn’t give it up for anything else in my routine; it is as important as my morning coffee. I honestly believe that daily movement is the secret of life. It is a source of deep joy, trust in myself, self-love, and strength.

You will feel less hopeless if you go out and attend an action, with your body, connecting with other humans. A lot of the despair I am hearing is from folks who have not left their home yet to be out in the resistance. It reminds me of an old joke from The Simpsons, “You gotta help us, man! We haven’t tried anything yet and we’re all out of ideas!” You will also feel better if you stretch before and after taking political action.

Have you heard about people exercising to be “strong for the resistance?” It’s pretty cute. I don’t know if we will be called to compete, Hunger Games style, against the white supremacists who run Breitbart, but I know this struggle will require muscle. We must be up for the task of responding to ICE raids as witnesses and advocates, if need be. We have to have the stamina to attend protests, whatever the weather. We will need the fortitude of spirit to participate in civil disobedience and risk arrest to end unjust laws. These are things we gain from exercise and body connection, however slow and steady they are. It is how we learn, in the body, that we can do hard things. Once you build muscle memory around the choreography of resistance, the tasks seem less daunting.

Rhea St. Julien, LMFT, is an arts-based psychotherapist living and working in San Francisco. Her exercise of choice is a form of cardiovascular dancing called Rhythm & Motion, which combines hot jazz, 90’s inspirational booty-shaking, and a whole lot of face.