How many times have you heard a woman tell a story about a time in her life when her mind or body simply shut down, refusing to allow her to continue on the path she’d been taking for one minute longer. These are often dramatic, pivotal moments that change her life forever. But why do so many women wait for something so drastic to happen – why not listen to your body sooner, and make those changes without having to face complete shut down?
So often, the signals your body sends begin like a whisper, saying “hey, my head hurts a little. Can we breathe for a while?” Those signals are easy to ignore, and too many women do just that, convinced they have no time to breathe. So it gets a little louder — the headache intensifies, and is soon accompanied by a stomachache.
Still, they don’t listen. Maybe they take an over the counter medicine or two, then push through their endless to do lists. Finally, the voice is shouting. A full blown migraine develops, complete with nausea and acute sensitivity to light making it impossible to even open their eyes. Even when they’re finally in bed, giving their bodies the rest it now demands, they think about all the things left undone. As soon as they find the tiniest bit of relief, they’re up and at it again. And then they wonder why it keeps happening.
Why Do We Do This to Ourselves?
One of the reasons that women push aside early warning signs is that we’ve been trained to be tough, working through pain of one kind or another just to keep daily life running smoothly. How often have you heard someone say “I don’t have time to be sick!” But the reality is, if they don’t take the time to really pay attention to the signals they’re receiving, they may end up with no choice at all.
Every once in a while, I have people tell me that’s what they want. I have a friend who actually says sometimes that she wishes disaster would strike so she could get some rest. She’s actually wishing for a serious illness because then people would have to understand. She simply can’t make herself stop on her own. How sad is that?
And then there’s our cultural belief that many of these symptoms are normal, and just something you learn to deal with. Like the women who wait to come and see me about fatigue because they assume it’s just a product of the crazy schedules they maintain. But having to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, or needing to stop and rest when walking from one room to another is not something you should live with. It could be a sign of serious adrenal or hormonal dysfunction. And when left unattended too long, these problems could land you in the hospital.
I’ve had other women come in after years – decades even – of digestive trouble. They’ve lived with gas, bloating, and chronic constipation or diarrhea for so long they forget to mention it until I ask. But it’s not normal to have these issues forever — and you shouldn’t need prescription medication to control these symptoms long term. Often, it’s some kind of imbalance in your gut flora at play, and with a few simple steps you can rid yourself of these symptoms forever. But not if you don’t listen to your body.
Finally, there’s the idea that as we age we have no choice but to let our bodies deteriorate. We blame new joint and muscle pain on the fact that we’re getting older, and simply live with it until it becomes so severe we can’t move. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I know so many people who are in their sixties – and older – who feel better than they ever have. But that didn’t happen without some effort on their part!
Why is it So Important to Listen to Your Body?
Conventional medicine focuses so much on getting rid of symptoms or treating disease that the first course of action is usually a prescription of one kind or another. But treating symptoms doesn’t do anything to address the underlying problem.
And when you silence your body instead of hearing what it’s trying to tell you, those problems can get bigger and bigger. So the woman who seeks help for hot flashes and night sweats and is handed an antidepressant ends up more frustrated and confused when she doesn’t find relief, and suddenly finds herself with intense anxiety on top of it all. The antidepressants don’t work because the real problem runs much deeper.
That’s why I always tell my patients if you don’t listen to your body, it will eventually force to you listen. What begins as a whisper will end up a shriek. And if you don’t listen to that shrieking, you are headed for a major crash.
I had a patient once whose life was a mess. I told her she was headed down a path of destruction, and had to change the way she was living. She refused to listen – and one day, in her frantic, chaotic life, her cell phone dropped to the floor as she was driving. She bent to pick it up and her car slipped under a Mack truck. No, she didn’t die, and you’d think that would have been her wake up call, right? Unfortunately, after a year of rehab, she still refused to see that the way she was coping simply wasn’t working – and she died in a surfing accident a few years later.
That’s the extreme, obviously. But it illustrates a vital point I want to make. So many women simply don’t know how to practice self-care. They don’t feel like they can slow down; they are constantly caring for others to their own detriment. When the crash comes, it feels like it comes out of the blue. But if you really listen to your body, you notice the warning signs before it’s too late.
Tuning in to Your Body’s Signals
Okay, so now you may understand why it’s so important to receive the messages your body is sending, but still have no idea where to even begin. When you have spent your whole life putting other people first, it’s difficult to stop – for you, and for them. And I’m not suggesting that you make drastic changes all at once.
Before you get to the point where quitting your job without a plan or walking away from a marriage seem like the only ways out, let’s take a look at some things you can do to really tune in. You may still come to that point, but it will be through thoughtful deliberation instead of spur-of-the-moment reaction. And when you’ve taken the time to notice the signs, and hone in on what they really mean, it’s much more likely that any changes you make will stick.
Find a Spiritual Connection – Whatever That Means to You
When I talk to my patients about connecting with their spirituality, make sure they understand I’m not talking about any specific religious practice or beliefs. Whatever it is that you believe, it’s important to call upon that when you’re struggling.
Let me tell you another story about what can happen when you do. I had a patient who was so unhappy in her marriage, and with her job, and with life in general, but couldn’t come up with any way to change it. When I asked her what she was going to do, her only response was “I don’t know!” So I asked her what she believed in, what spiritual connection she had. She said she believed in angels, so I told her to ask her angels for help.
Those angels must have thought the situation called for drastic measures, because two days later, she called me, wailing “You did this!” When she calmed down enough to explain, she told me that her husband had asked for a divorce, her boss called her into his office and let her go due to downsizing, and on her way home she had a car accident. Then, when she finally arrived home, she found her house on fire. I know this sounds incredible – like something out of a movie, but it’s a true story!
Two years later, she was back in my office, telling me that all of those traumatic events were the best thing that ever happened to her. She said she never would have moved on if those things hadn’t occurred. The terrible events of that day changed everything, and she had since remarried and was the happiest she’d ever been in her life.
I feel like there were some powerful forces at play that day. Extreme, to be sure, but the universe has a way of making you take action when you’re stuck. Wouldn’t it be great to tune in before all those catastrophes and make those changes willingly?
Examine Your Coping Mechanisms
We all have ways of coping with stress – some healthier than others. Often, the unhealthy responses are so automatic women don’t even know they’re doing them.
I see women’s methods of coping backfire on them all the time. I’ll watch someone down three cups of coffee, then complain about anxiety and a racing heartbeat. I know women who have a glass of wine every night to relax, then find themselves drenched in sweat at 3 am, with increasingly worse hot flashes. I hear of patients exercising so excessively that they’re injuring themselves repeatedly, but still keep pushing. Others tell me that they’ve turned to take out every night to save time in their busy lives, only to find themselves sluggish and irritable.
It’s only when you stop and notice that your built-in responses to stressful situations make you feel even worse that you can do something about it.
Related article: Stress and Hormones: How Stress Affects Your Hormonal Health
Learn to Be Still
How can you hear what’s going on in your mind if you never stop? You can’t! There are so many benefits to putting the brakes on, if only for a few moments. Often, one of the things you’ll realize it that constant motion is just another unhealthy coping mechanism. If you’re always on the run, you don’t have to really listen to those worries and fears building up inside. And if you can’t hear them, you don’t have to change anything. Until you crash — and you will crash eventually.
Wouldn’t you rather figure it out on your own terms? Listen to your body when it cries out for you to slow down, or stop. If the thought of truly doing nothing terrifies you, start with some practices that force you to slow down. Meditation and yoga can be great places to begin – either on your own, or in a class.
You don’t have to stop for long to tune into your body. Hit pause, just for a few minutes. Take some deep breaths. Take advantage of unplanned pauses too — instead of getting angry in a traffic jam, use that time to ask yourself how you truly feel in that moment. The more often you ask yourself that question, the more aware you’ll be of what you need.
Embrace the Mind-Body Connection
I truly believe that you have the power to control your own health. And your thoughts have a lot to do with it. If you believe the negative messages that may stem from childhood – that you aren’t good enough, or strong enough, or whatever enough, taking action can seem impossible.
To truly heal physical health, you have to address the emotional side of your health as well. And when you listen to your body, you’ll likely hear what that emotional piece is trying to say. Do you feel nauseous when you pull into your driveway at night, fearful of the interactions awaiting you? Do you get a headache just thinking about going to work? That’s emotional stress talking, alerting you to how you really feel about the situation. Facing your true feelings is the first step towards emotional freedom.
Write It Down
One of the first recommendations I make when addressing physical issues is to keep a log. This can be useful in so many situations, helping you get to the bottom of what’s really going on. Tracking your eating habits for a week or two, and how you feel afterwards, can help you see if food sensitivities are behind your physical symptoms. If you also track what was happening before you made particular food choices, you might identify what situations create certain cravings.
Keeping a log of exercise and your energy levels before and afterwards can help you determine what form is best for you. If you notice persistent physical symptoms, writing down when they occur can help you identify patterns — do you cough more when your in a store filled with chemical fragrances? Or have an upset stomach every time you have to go to work?
Writing in a journal can help release those feelings I talked about earlier – an important step in healing poor health.
Make a Self Care Plan – and Follow Through On It
I have one more story to share with you. This one shows how important it can be to have a plan for – one that you don’t allow anyone else to alter. Recently, I was using Uber while travelling. I have a way of drawing people’s stories out of them, and the driver shared this one with me. He said that he had recently had a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side. He had no function whatsoever.
After four days in the hospital, he went for rehabilitation. He told his wife that he was determined to never again be in a wheelchair. He worked hard in rehab, started doing crossword puzzles to build his brain functioning, made some healthy changes to his diet, including adding some crucial supplements, and began walking every day. There he was, two years later, driving a car for Uber. That’s the power of making a plan to care for yourself!
You can do it too, hopefully before you find yourself literally paralyzed. Of course he had medical issues but did he have signals along the way he did not pay attention to. But you have to believe that you’re worth it. You have to push aside the guilt that comes so quickly to women in our culture, and realize that you truly can’t help anyone else if you aren’t helping yourself.
Start slowly if you need to. Choose one small thing you will do for yourself every day. Maybe it’s half an hour in the morning to take a walk before anyone else is up making demands on your time. Or ten minutes at the end of the day when you sit and take deep breaths. Write it in your appointment book like any other commitment, so when someone requests that time you can tell them it’s already filled.
Don’t Wait for Disaster to Strike – Listen to Your Body Now!
I rejoice every time I hear a woman say she has realized how important she is. When she is able to recognize that her life simply isn’t working, and set aside the mask she’s been wearing for far too long, that’s when her life truly begins. You can get there too – and it all begins by listening to the whisper. You don’t need your body to scream at you. Notice the small issues and take steps to address them, them embrace the amazing changes that come your way — physically and emotionally!