Somatically, at least.
What I mean by that is, our bodies are incredibly adaptive. They tend to form themselves according to how we use them.
Of course, disabilities and chronic illnesses are a major exception to this rule. For example, if someone has Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, their bodies are going to weaken despite exercise and superior care. I consider this one of life’s profound unfairnesses.
But for the most part, our behaviors are incredibly important in determining our long term physical and mental health. If we put a consistent demand on our bodies to do something, they will strengthen themselves very specifically to adapt to this demand. Unless the demand is too much, beyond its capacity to adapt; in that case, the body part tends to break down. I think this is one reason why runners have a high incidence of injury (besides the high potential for poor biomechanical form). It’s because running can become so fun and gratifying on so many levels, that it’s easy to put too much demand on the body, too quickly or with insufficient recovery time, resulting in overuse injury.
Of course, the capacity of a specific body part to strengthen/adapt, varies widely, according to genetics, history of injury/illness, etc. This is why people with a history of heart disorders have to strengthen that muscle very carefully, and under medical supervision!
I think this tendency towards specific adaptation even includes our reflexes. Here’s a very interesting article about how myopia (nearsightedness) has been dramatically increasing. Apparently, its incidence has basically doubled in about 30 years. This is far too short of a time for it to be attributed to evolution. This is a major change within our lifespans–and not a good change.
The article says that scientists can’t agree on why this is happening. However, it’s already known that agricultural nations, whose citizens spend more time outside and physically active, tend to have less myopia and (I think) fewer eye disorders overall. I feel that while the scientific community is busy investigating research protocols (perhaps a little myopically?) it wouldn’t hurt most of us to use a little common sense: If we sit inside all day and look at things that are close, like computer screens and cell phones, which tend to cause eyestrain, then our bodies will try to adapt, that is, improve their capacity to see close things, potentially at the expense of seeing farther things under a variety of light conditions. Furthermore, if we push our eyes too much to strain all day at these screens, particularly under conditions of emotional (hence somatic) tension, our eyes might begin to break down. So following that (non-scientific, common sense) hypothesis, perhaps a deliberate effort to get outside, move our bodies and expose them to all sorts of visual distances and natural light conditions, would be a good investment of our time and effort. I mean, a little more balance in our lives couldn’t hurt, right?
Now, consider how this might apply to the ways in which we think and feel. Thoughts and emotions can actually be considered behaviors. I know I’m kinda pushing this use of the word “behaviors” a little bit, in that an outside observer can’t directly observe thoughts (hence Skinner’s famous “black box”) or emotions–although a trained observer can certainly see evidence of various thoughts and emotions in process.
However, thoughts and emotions are indeed things that we do, and they are usually habitual. This is why persons with post-traumatic stress often find themselves in a survival panic, when there is nothing currently threatening. Or else they might find themselves numb, even though it’s a beautiful day, and it would be great to be able to be present and take it all in. Here is a great article about how our attention can cause neural pathways to form, pathways that either harm us or help us. For my clients: This article pretty much explains why I’m always bugging you to direct your attention to pleasant experiences, and feel into them! We’re trying to hardwire a sense of good into your system! Attention + consistent repetition = changes in hardwiring and neural pathways.
So think about it. How are you using yourself today?
If you don’t like the way you are using yourself, what are you willing and able to do about it?
If your efforts fail, don’t be quick to blame yourself. Hardwired patterns can be very difficult to change, especially when trauma or overwhelm has been involved in the formation of the patterns. Efforts to change might become even more difficult when society and/or the demands of life seem to support the old pattern (e.g., too much computer work and no exercise; stress eating; too much caretaking others and little self-care time; etc.). This is where the support of a good somatic therapist can be extremely helpful!
In any case, I am frequently amazed by our bodies, especially their consistent efforts to protect and help us. Somatically and neurologically informed therapies help us learn to “speak” the “language” of our bodies and unconscious minds, so that we can be internally consistent, all parts of us learning to work together, instead of pitting ourselves against ourselves.