Compared to the mind, the body is more visceral, more explicit.  It’s the flesh, blood and guts of life.  But I’m not wanting to write so much about what the body is, but more about what it represents.  If the brain controls the way the body works, the mind is concerned with what it means. Every thought, every wish, every dread, every worry, everything that happens to us is played us in our physiology.   Physiology is the embodiment of mind.        


Look at the way we stand, the way we sit, how we walk, the gestures we make with our hands.  Our bodies reveal so much about the way we feel.  The open posture of joy is in marked contrast to the hunched up, head down, shuffling posture of sadness.  Body language is universal.  The balled fists and  jutting chin of anger or the cowering of fear are the same, no matter which culture we are from. The arms folded across the chest indicate a defensiveness in any country.  Clumsiness can reveal a mind out of control. Attitudes of mind are held in attitudes of body.  It is impossible to feel joy while simulating the posture of sadness.  Pilates improves mood and well being through the adoption of a confident posture. 


Listen to how we speak.  The high pitch of tension, the muffled consonants of guilt,  the lack of confidence expressed in the hesitancy, the inability to find the right word.  We don’t have to see a person to know how they are feeling.  We can discern that by the sound of their voice.  A nervous voice can make us feel nervous too. 


Our faces are even more expressive.  There are over seventy different muscles of facial expression, each controlled by twiglets of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves  and modulated by a seasoning of hormones.  Primates are unique in the animal kingdom in being able to advertise their feelings in their faces.  And human beings have the most expressive faces of all.  Every nuance of emotion can be expressed in the face, not only fear, joy, sadness and anger but also complex emotions like shame, guilt and envy, and even ambivalence as when the mouth grins confidence while the eyes flash fear. It’s almost impossible for facial expressions to lie; the false smiles and masks of concern all too clearly betray insincerity.    


Throughout a lifetime, emotional attitudes become etched in the face as creases develop along lines of tension. As a therapist, I make a note the themes expressed on the faces my clients sitting opposite me.  They may be smiling but the hollowness under their eyes, the parallel lines above their nose, the tightness in the cheeks tell a different story. 


Nevertheless, the adoption of a particular facial expression has a direct effect on how we ‘feel’.  Mood is a body sensation.  Smiling actually makes us feel happy – light and confident and full of energy, whereas putting on a sad expression makes us feel heavy and tired.  Facial expression is controlled by the same nerves that induce feelings in other parts of the body.  Infants learn how to feel by copying the emotional expressions of their mothers.  A smile feels good.  A frown doesn’t.  That’s the way they are wired up. An expression of disgust may actually make them feel sick. 


And if we smile, then we can make other people smile too.  Smile and the world smiles with you.  The feeling is passed on. We are social animals and as such can so readily take on the mood of the people we are with.  I can be with one patient and feel absolutely exhausted, but as soon as my next client comes in, I am wide awake and my heart is racing.  The technical term for this is counter-transference. My feelings give me insight into how they are feeling.  Comedians and politicians quickly tune in to the feeling of their audience and know how to work it.  Police on crowd control at football matches are too well aware when the mood turns ugly.       


So emotions and moods are based on physical sensations, the embodiment of what happens to us.  In most situations, we instantaneously relate how we’re feeling to what has happened and know that what we are feeling frustrated or sad or anxious about.   Emotions are feelings put into context.  There can be no emotion without a body.  People with quadriplegia can have a noticeable blunting of affect while those few tragic cases of  ‘locked-in syndrome’, in which a lesion in front of the midbrain results in a total loss of feeling throughout the body, are said to express a tranquillity quite out of keeping with their devastating condition (though how they do that is not clear).     


The word, ‘emotion’, is derived from the latin verb, emovere, to move out.  The transformation by context of our body sensations into an emotion allows resolution.  The feelings can be eliminated by dealing with the situation that caused them.  But if what happens is so unfamiliar and so awful that we don’t want to think about it or we are unable to resolve it, then the feelings remain and are consolidated as symptoms, which are taken to the doctor.


Evidence for this comes from the study of people who have persistent symptoms of infection, injury or operative trauma even though any objective signs of illness have long disappeared.  A few years ago, we showed that patients with persistent symptoms of diarrhoea following an attack of gastroenteritis had higher scores for anxiety and depression and more traumatic life events at the time of their original illness than those whose symptoms cleared up.  It appeared as if the symptoms of gastroenteritis had been recruited to express ongoing distress.  Similar observations have been made in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome following influenza, pelvic discomfort after hysterectomy, persistent back ache following back injury and ongoing dental pain following tooth extraction.  A connection between the context and  physical symptom is established in the brain and continues to be evoked whenever the person is reminded about what happened.   


Persistence is even more likely to occur with symptoms that were originally evoked by stress.  Such symptoms represent the meaning of what has happened. Thus, chronic fatigue may be generated by obligations that the patient resents, anorexia by a fear of adult responsibilities, incontinence or flatulence by feelings of humiliation and shame. But such interpretations are not prescriptive. Like dreams, unexplained symptoms express the personal experience of the patient and can only be resolved by decoding their message in the light of what has happened to them.   


So much of our personal history is apparent in the way our bodies relate.  Look at how people greet each other.   Do they make and hold eye contact and for how long?  Do they shake hands, hug or kiss – one cheek or two or even three?  Is their hand warm or cold or wet?  And their grip, is it firm, crushing or loose.  Does the hold linger too long?  Are they stiff and stand-offish?  Is their speech hesitant?  And how does the manner of their greeting make us feel?  All of these convey a meaning which we can easily detect. 


So much more is revealed in the way people make love.  All of our ambivalence about people is played out through sex.  Impotence is a sign of vulnerability and disempowerment.  Vaginal dryness implies a lack of desire; vulvodynia – sexual repression, a conflict between fear and desire.


The philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty has suggested that the way we think is conditioned by our notion of the body. Our bodies and the nature and range of our perception provide the framework by which we understand the world. He called this embodiment. What happens is processed through the body, which then supplies the meaning of the situation.  No wonder we have so many visceral metaphors to describe emotional experience:  I can’t stomach that,  it pisses me off, I can’t bear it, gutted, heartache, it takes my breath away, you make me sick, it gives me the shits.  


Ancient physicians understood health and the nature of illness in terms of the balance of the four humours, black bile (melancholy), phlegm, blood and bile.  This made no sense from a physiological perspective, but since each bodily fluid represented a different mood (melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine and choleric), it emphasised the importance of the emotional links with the body on health.