It’s common to wonder whether talking to yourself is “normal.” Let me be the first to tell you—it’s what got me through the pandemic.
Three years ago following a routine sinus surgery, I woke up to blinding head pain. My surgeon assured me it was temporary, but months passed and the pain endured. I quit my job and moved in with my parents, who took me to countless specialists. Eventually, I was diagnosed with chronic daily headache, a condition defined by experiencing 15 or more headache days a month, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Throughout the next year I tried several treatments from Botox to nerve blocks and even experimental medication. While marginally helpful, nothing really worked until my long-time psychiatrist suggested somatic therapy.
Somatic therapy is quite different from more commonly known forms of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy, in that it aims to treat symptoms of chronic and post-traumatic stress with exercises that direct the patient to focus on internal sensations, like tension, pain, or tightness. In doing so, somatic therapy is meant to explore and bridge the connection between body and mind.
Prior to starting therapy, that connection, for me, was nonexistent. Whether overloading my schedule or not taking care of a cold, I had ignored my body my entire life. Like many other somatic therapy patients, I started my journey by doing mindfulness exercises to learn to be more aware of my body. My therapist taught me to pendulate by shifting focus between an area of pain to a more comfortable area on my body. I also practiced visualizing my pain as a wall and dismantling it brick by brick.
At first, none of these coping mechanisms seemed to work. I struggled with them for six months and inevitably felt frustrated. “You can’t undo 20 years of behavior in a few months,” my therapist reminded me. “How can you expect your body to see you as a friend when you treat it like something to be crossed off your to-do list?”
Then, she suggested something new: In order to actually befriend my body, I had to really, truly, treat it like a friend. And that involved speaking to it—having actual conversations with my body. “Approach it like any new relationship,” my therapist said in total seriousness. “Try to ask questions to get to know it better.”
So, I started talking to myself. Out loud.
While it may sound strange, asking yourself questions is actually a common practice in somatic therapy, used to clarify awareness of what is happening in the body. But according to my therapist, not everyone is told to simply “talk to themselves.” My therapist suggested this as part of our somatic therapy to enable me to further develop that mind-body awareness in a way I could more easily understand.
At first, I was reluctant. I asked my body audibly, “How are you feeling?” when my migraines worsened. Often, my body would flood with anxiety or freeze up with stress. When that happened, I’d ask, “What do you need in order to feel more relaxed?” I would wait and listen, then act on what my body “said” back to me. If my body felt tired, I would nap. If I was anxious, I would meditate. If I needed more information about what my body needed, I asked follow-up questions.
I used this “conversation” technique sparingly for a year and a half before the pandemic, but it became an invaluable tool when lockdown began in March 2020. The first week of quarantine, debilitating migraines and anxiety made it impossible for me to work. To cope, I began talking with my body for 30 minutes up to six times a day. To others, even patients of somatic therapy, this may seem like a lot. However, when I expressed this concern to my therapist, she said that if talking to myself was making me less anxious, I should do it as much as I thought was needed. (Granted, I was under her regular care—if you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, or a chronic condition, it’s best to practice therapeutic techniques in tandem with the guidance of a mental health care professional.)