History = Your Health
It's possible that aside from active infections or injuries, your personal history is the single greatest contributor to your mental and physical health. It's well known that experiences of stress and trauma-both big and small-have a major impact on the way our biology functions and our nervous system fires. Compound those over decades and you've got yourself a body that's on high alert with no resources left to fight. The books below will teach you the most crucial concepts of mind-body health. Dive in.
If you're not familiar with Attachment, you're missing a key component to understanding how your body and mind function. Briefly, each of us have an attachment "style" that is dictated by our caregivers' patterns. This style influences how our nervous system functions and it has profound implications for both our relationships and our health. I have found that nearly all of my clients fall into two categories of attachment style; a large part of my work with them is understanding and reshaping those nervous system patterns to enhance their health and regulation.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
For me, this is a go-to book on substance abuse and treatment, which is extremely misunderstood by society. Addiction is so stigmatized in our country that people who abuse substances are typically thought of as lazy, weak, and/or disrespectful to others and they are treated as such--as though they should be categorically rejected and discarded. The problem is, experiences of feeling rejected, discarded, and unsafe are EXACTLY what led them to use substances in the first place. As difficult as it may be to comprehend, most people end up abusing substances because their brain has determined that it's the only viable answer. Imagine how unthinkable it might be to ask you to stop eating ANY sugar immediately and maintain that for the rest of your life. Would you be willing to do it? Able to do it? The reason for your hesitation is much more biological than willful, and the same is true for drug addiction. In this book, Gabor Mate combines firsthand experiences with science and theory to paint a different picture of what addiction means. Especially if drugs and alcohol have touched you or someone you know, I encourage you to check it out.
The Body Keeps Score
This book is considered an essential read in the fields of integrative health and trauma treatment. As mentioned elsewhere on this list, health psychology rests upon the understanding that our physical health is highly representative of the difficult things we experience in our lives--and more specifically, how we process those events. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the pioneers of the modern "mind-body" health movement, teaches about this principle--namely, what happens when traumatic or difficult events are left unattended and how they come to be "stored" in the body. In my work with my clients, this concept is something we rely on heavily; in fact, I would say that it's one of the core components to successful treatment. This is because our nervous system (and therefore health) is modulated by cues of safety or threat; the difference between excitement and anxiety is often determined by our brain's interpretation of those cues. Through the development of awareness and use of play and movement, we can shift the interpretation of certain cues, reprogramming our nervous system to feel more safe and at peace more often. I find that the more open and aware my clients are about how trauma has impacted their lives and health, the faster their progress and the more profound the benefits they experience. If that is something you are interested in, I can't recommend this book enough.
Trauma and Recovery
This book has been described as "essential," "powerful," and "life-changing" because of the way it cultivates a nuanced understanding of trauma. Though Dr. Herman delves more into the historical and political factors influencing trauma and recovery, she does a great job helping the reader understand how many different experiences can constitute trauma, what trauma symptoms look like, and what the path to recovery (which is possible!) entails. As it stands, there is a debate amongst professionals as to what constitutes something "traumatic" because trauma is difficult to measure. However, in my practice what matters more than a categorical label is how our nervous system functioning has been impacted by threats to our physical and emotional safety. When we perceive threats to our well being--whether small (e.g., a harsh comment) or large (e.g., a major car accident)--our nervous system catalogs those experiences and adapts its functioning in an effort to feel less threatened. In this way, societal disparities in power and resources can enact trauma on a systemic level that impacts health in a significant way. Unaddressed, these adaptations translate into patterns that affect our brain functioning, hormones, immune system, gut and organs, pain and reward pathways--everything that ends up being a focus of therapy.
When the Body Says No
If there's one thing I'm constantly having to teach about health, it's that medical health and psychological health are absolutely inseparable. They are the SAME thing. A dive into the science will show you that thoughts, perceptions, and emotions create physiological changes in our brains and bodies, just as things that happen to our bodies influence our mood, inner experiences, and thoughts about ourselves, our health, and everything around us. Perhaps the easiest way to think about this concept is the construct of stress. As Gabor Maté explains in this profoundly illuminating book, stress has both biological and psychological components that often impact us in ways that are beneath conscious awareness. To understand stress is to know that our modern age combined with the abstract capabilities of our brains has transformed our bodies into factories of chronic stress. It is this stress--created and perpetuated by interpersonal experiences and societal functions--that puts chronic and complex illness in motion. I heartily encourage you to read this book, the content of which is a focus for much of the work I do with my clients. Understanding these concepts offers a view into why and how addressing psychology and re-tuning our nervous system is the key to improving our biological functioning.