The Importance of Listening To Your Body
What does your body do when it's trying to communicate with you? Is it a little tired after a night of drinking? Does it give you a hint of a headache if it's after 9 and you haven't had your coffee yet?
My body is a good communicator-like a diplomat who helps each side understand each other and who can speak 10 different languages. My body is also clear about its needs-like an overly sensitive car ready to park, that beeps within 10 feet of anything it might crash into. The risk isn't imminent, but it freaks out about it anyway because it's cautious. But my body is also a child who has skipped nap time and refuses to eat dinner because she wants dessert first. Her parents won't let her to try and instill some discipline so she is majorly grumpy.
My body is... my body is LOUD. A diplomat bartering a deal between nations who don't quite see eye to eye, a car whose beeping is incessant despite being in park, a child in meltdown mode hoping tears will bring cake instead of broccoli.
While my body screams, I generally spend my time ignoring it until it refuses to be ignored anymore. I attribute this to my Type A personality and stubbornness passed down to me over generations (looking at you mom and grandmom!), that I believe sheer will and positive thinking will let me push through symptoms. Don't get me wrong- I listen to my body in that I eat healthy, work out often, meditate, and get a good night's sleep most nights. However, when my body is tired or overly stressed or overwhelmed I try and push through. This is a mistake. You'd think I'd learn by now but surprise! I haven't.
When my body tries to tell me I'm stressed or tired or in a flare and need a break, it doesn't do so quietly. I can't feel my hands and feet. I struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I have shooting pains throughout my body, stomach pain so bad I retreat to a fetal position all night, rashes break out on my body. It's not subtle. Yet I keep my speed up, dismiss symptoms, and charge ahead.
I read on a random Instagram post the other day a great quote, "Tiredness is one of our strongest, most noble, and instructive feelings...everywhere we see people overcoming their exhaustion and pushing on with intensity...and being congratulated for overcoming it...so I gently urge you to learn to feel your noble tiredness-learn about it and make a generous place for it in your life...I repeat; it's worth doing nothing and having a rest." -The Curly Pyjama Letters by Michael Leunig
I love this quote and understand the sentiment deeply. I've talked about it a lot here but why is doing nothing so damn hard?! Why is resting and taking a break thought of as weakness and tiredness perceived as human error? When our body and mind are able to escape the hamster wheel of "go" and explore behind the confines of our day to day perpetual churn, magical moments happen. So how do we listen to our bodies to let that magic occur? Or at least listen to our bodies to help us to recover?
Neil Parischa of The Happiness Equation says, "John Cleese of Monty Python described in a speech, 'Most of the time when we're at work, we have inside us a feeling that there's lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we're going to get through it all. It's an active, probably slightly anxious mode, although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable---it's a mode in which we're very purposeful and it's a mode in which we can can very stressed and even a bit manic'"
In other words, our "get shit done" mode. This is when the diplomat can't quite get through to both sides. The child and parent take awhile to compromise. The car beeps loudly.
The opposite? The open mode. "By contrast, the open mode is a relaxed, expansive, less purposeful mode in which we're probably more contemplative, inclined to humor...it's a mode in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly...you have to create some space for yourself away from those demands."
These states parallel the two sides of the nervous system that are imbalanced for me. The sympathetic system is often termed "fight or flight" and was incredibly useful for cavemen running from lions. Now, the sympathetic system is responsible for maintaining homeostasis--it causes vasoconstriction when you're stressed (in every organ, hello constipation!), transmits sensory information, and releases adrenaline. This system firing at the wrong time is why I have heat flashes like a menopausal woman, unexplained pains throughout my body in a flare, and lots of stomach issues. It fires when there is no perceived threat or activates when I don't need it-for example when I'm trying to go to bed. It is activated more intensely with stress, poor eating, exhaustion, or essentially anything else that puts my body slightly out of homeostasis.
The parasympathetic system is the one that conserves energy, slows heart rate, increases intestinal activity and relaxes sphincter muscles--the open mode. This system firing at the wrong time is why I get exhausted in the middle of the day for no reason, why my blood pressure can't regulate going from laying down to standing, and why my extremities might be fatigued even though I'm not. This system should fire when I'm relaxed but can fire at the same time as the sympathetic causing a confusing cacophony of symptoms and is activated more intensely with the same activities the sympathetic is susceptible to.
To maintain the most balance between these systems it is essential to listen to my body's signals whether it's stress, an illness, a vitamin deficiency, or something I'm eating to maintain a balance. Focusing on creating the right balance of "open mode" and "get shit done mode" is really important and teaching my body when to activate each has been a continued adventure. Once these systems out of sync-my body's shouts are deafening.
There's some clear signals for me of when my body needs an extended break. I don't feel present and am not processing events completely. My stomach is out of whack consistently. I'm exhausted for a week or more. I'm anxious for no reason at all. I have random pains in my extremities. If your body is showing any of these signs, consider listening. Like Leunig said, consider, "doing nothing and having a rest". But how do we rest? Silly question it seems but doing nothing can sometimes feel impossible.
Here's a few recommendations that have helped me:
1. Do An Activity Away From Your Screens: Go for a hike, sit in the sauna, grab a coloring book, have brunch with a friend. Technology is awesome but can create anxiety and fills any empty space in our day not allowing our minds to breathe. Detach and let your mind wander a bit. This is harder than it sounds (see my digital detox article for more tips on how to do this)
2. Talk to Someone: How often do you talk to someone in depth about how you're feeling or what you're experiencing? A therapist, a friend, a family member, or a significant other, it doesn't matter. Talk about your feelings. Talk about your symptoms. Be honest and release some of that "perfect" pressure to own up to the fact you're not okay. When you name the beast, it's often enough to make it retreat a little.
3. Practice Self Care: My body often yells at me when I haven't been practicing self care. This is important and something I am guilty of not making enough time to do. Make a fun and healthy recipe. Go to the gym. Give yourself a pedicure. Sometimes, your body is simply telling you it wants to be loved and cared for--so do so, it's the only one you've got.
4. Meditate-But Not Right Away: I love meditation-but when I'm stuck in body freak out mode, the stress of calming down only makes me more anxious. Try the steps above first and then you can meditate at least having released some of that toxic energy.
5. Don't Rush It: If you're Type A like me, you'll want to do the above quickly and get back into it. Do not do that. I repeat-do not do that. Your body will do the same thing again. Give yourself the permission, time, and space to recover. Don't feel guilty about it, you are putting your health first so you can achieve all you want to.
Though these steps work for me, it may take some time to figure out what works for you. Be patient with yourself as you try to figure out what works. It's amazing what happens when you take the time to do this.
When we take the time to rebalance-we come back to our day to day tasks refreshed, with energy, clarity, and patience. We're able to think through difficult problems with ease, to push our body to do more, to appreciate the people around us. It is magic.
And guess what? It also helps the flare. The diplomat sits down, gathers her thoughts, and comes back to the bargaining table calm and with a plan. The car gets a tune up and stops beeping at any sign of a distant threat. The child takes a nap, wakes up happy and eats her broccoli AND her cake. Magic.