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But How Can Our Feelings Change Our Bodies?

Supriya Misra

When we talk about violence against women, we can learn the litany of potential health consequences these experiences can cause: from gynecological problems and pregnancy-related complications to chronic pain and recurrent distress. Violence is physically and emotionally traumatic; its effects can persist much longer than any visible signs.

How do we learn to detect the invisible signs?

In the United States, we hear about mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. These do not always resonate with South Asians. While it is important to destigmatize mental health in our communities, it is equally important to consider how our feelings might express themselves in our bodies. It turns out that in Asian cultures, we tend to consider the mind and body as one, but Western medicine typically does not.

This leads to significant differences in experiences. In non-Western cultures and Asian countries, emotional distress is more likely to emerge as physical symptoms. In India, for example, some studies have found depression expressed as numbness and tingling. This means that we might not be looking for the right signs in our communities.

I still remember a story I heard years ago about a man in India who had back pain that did not appear to be caused by any injury or illness. The health professional kept asking questions, wanting to figure out when the pain first started and why. Eventually, she discovered that this man's mother had passed away the same week. He had not made this connection himself.

What does this mean for us?

This means we, as people, can literally embody the world around us. Whether it is violence against women, death of a loved one, or other stressful experiences, we can start to make those invisible visible by looking for the physical signs we might have.

Chronic pain is an important one. Women tend to experience pain more frequently, for longer, and with greater severity than men. At the same time, their pain is often taken less seriously by their doctors or families. Pain is subjective; it relies on someone telling us how they feel. Too often, we dismiss women's "feelings" as just that. We hear stories of how South Asian women are supposed to be strong and work through any suffering.

Look for the signs. Not only what your loved ones say or do not say but their posture and facial expressions. How things change. If they start to talk about or show signs of inexplicable pain, lack of energy, poor sleep, or other shifts in their physical health, these might signal something else is going on. Remember then: these are not signs of weakness; they are signs of the mind and body needing care.

(Supriya Misra is a volunteer with Saheli and a doctoral student in Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, focused on the design, evaluation, and implementation of culturally-sensitive mental health interventions. Previously, she worked for several years in non-profit management creating educational tools to promote positive health behaviors. )

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