To have my two children I went through three rounds of IVF and 10 attempts at re-implanting frozen embryos. I did the final round in a controversial London clinic which had a reputation for the ferocious intensity of the treatment. For over a month I had daily blood tests and ultrasound which the clinicians used to prescribe specific amounts of hormones to be injected – usually two or three different injections a day in the stomach and bottom.
I remember one day, half way through the treatment making my way up to Marylebone on the tube. Everyone was so rude. People were pushing and jostling to get on the train. I felt more and more angry with how inconsiderate people were. Then, when I got to the clinic the receptionist was taking too long so I snapped at her. She snapped back. I hated her. The person I sat next to in the crowded waiting room was taking up the space of my chair. Other people were talking too loudly. It seemed the world was full of irritating and thoughtless people.
Then as I sat watching a steady stream of women come in to pick up prescriptions for the powerful hormones I suddenly realised: what I am experiencing isn’t what is really going on. How I am feeling isn’t me. How I am seeing others isn’t how they are. My inner world had been drastically affected by the hormones and it was colouring everything I experienced. It was the effect of pumping my poor body full of hormones for the last two weeks, of tiredness from not sleeping well, of the stress of a final round of IVF.
That thought gave me the objectivity I desperately needed and it made me realise how much what is happening in our bodies can colour our mental experience and dramatically affect our reality. Everything we do to our bodies can affect our minds and vice versa.
There are many examples of where someone has used enormous strength of mind and awareness to mentally override a physical ordeal. In Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ he explores how some people were able to keep their sense of optimism and purpose during their imprisonment in the concentration camps. Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote his autobiography ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ despite suffering locked-in syndrome after a massive stroke, “I decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.”
These are feats of heroism where people have total awareness of their physical state and use immense inner strength to transcend it. Athletes, explorers, people pushing their body to the limit will do this. Most of the time, like me on the tube, we do not even consider the connection between how we are treating our bodies and how we see the world. There is now much evidence for the link between lack of sleep, lack of exercise, fast food and alcohol to depression and anxiety. There is no static, fixed world out there. There is just things that happen and our interpretation. Our interpretation will be influenced by so many elements including rest, nourishment and exercise. Why not give our experience of the world the best chance by treating our physical selves as well as we can?