Updated June 2, 2018
Body Speak: What Your Symptoms Might Be Saying
While symptoms can herald diseases, and should be taken seriously, they can also be our body’s way of trying to communicate important information about what’s going on in our inner world – what's working and what's not serving us well. Take for example, a woman who has horrible eczema but only under her wedding ring. It started when she began to suspect her husband was having an affair. Turned out he was. Or another who has terrible arthritis and when I asked her what triggers it she said, “My husband is a constant source of inflammation in my life. I want a divorce but just can’t go there.” Or another who works in a toxic social environment, really wants to quit her job and only gets headaches on weekdays. Or my patient who experienced Takotsubo syndrome, an actual change in her heart mimicking a heart attack, over the grief of her husband’s sudden and unexpected death. Our bodies don't lie!
In fact, our bodies speak to us all of the time, providing nearly instantaneous feedback on our safety, our environment, our sense of balance and place in the world around us. We receive many subtle physical messages throughout the day, and may have a sense that something is off before the tsunami symptom that lands us in the doctor's office or emergency room strikes. The messages might be an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of our stomach, a heavy feeling in the chest, tightness in the throat – something that gets our attention and makes us wonder if we’re doing the “right thing” or are safe at that moment. Some of us have specific “body barometers” – symptoms that are triggered when we are under stress or “something is not right” in our world, for example, a certain tooth that aches or a pinching stress headache. Too often we don’t hear these messages or have learned to tune them out in our busy lives – until they get too loud to ignore.
Conversely, when something is right for us or when we are in harmony in our lives we experience a sense of inner ease, wellness, or “rightness” that lets us know that all is copasetic.
Spinning Outta’ Control
“I feel like everything is spinning out of control. I feel so off balance.”
I’d been saying this to my husband on and off for a couple of weeks. Since everything in my life has been going exceptionally well, my husband didn't really get it. It's true, our kids are healthy, my work life is wonderful and my professional success has been accelerating with decades of work and dedication starting to pay off. Bigger opportunities are coming in regularly, at a new and faster pace – and prosperity is coming from doing work that I love and that is meaningful to me. What could be better? Life is good, eh?
I try to live a mindful life, take excellent care of myself, and recognize the need for rest. Business success, however, usually doesn't come without significant effort – it takes a lot of hard work and long hours. There are a lot of moving parts to keep up with. There are many decisions to make and people to satisfy. Sometimes there are busy periods when projects need to be completed or deadlines met. Worse yet, sometimes those periods converge. That's when I push myself to work when I know that I should take some down time. During these times I am less mindful of paying attention to my natural stopping points and need for recreation. I know so many of you are juggling busy home lives, demanding careers, education, and relationships. You are familiar with the need to just push through to complete projects. It can feel like you're in a whirlwind of epic proportion. If you're an old enough reader, you might think of those “Calgon, take me away” commercials in those moments (if you're not old enough to remember those, you can watch one on You Tube).
Recently, I found myself in the middle of a major unexpected business boon along with a huge roll out of the NEW! Herbal Medicine for Women course (it's totally 2.0) with more on my plate than I'd imagined, a number of other projects on the burners, and three college-aged daughters living at home for the summer.
In the midst of this, a friend sent an email that opened the door to a potential major opportunity for me. In a rush, instead of listening to the sensation I get in my abdomen that reminds me to pause and breathe before responding, which I would do in a calmer, less busy time, I dashed off a reply and hit SEND. In doing so I made some inaccurate assumptions. Oh no! Too late. There's no UNSEND button. Ouch. This is going to cause some hurt feelings for my friend. [Have you ever hit SEND and wished you could strike that and reverse it?] I immediately knew I had misfired and that sensation in my gut turned to a reeling feeling in my brain. I was moving too fast and needed to slow down!
Then it happened. A couple of days later I woke up at 4 am to the sensation of my bed spinning out of control. I grabbed the bed for dear life. Then I began retching violently. Vertigo. Indeed, I was off balance and spinning! The vertigo forced me to stop and be absolutely still!
How Might This Serve?
Two important questions I ask my patients, and myself, when a symptom presents or persists, are:
“How does this symptom serve you?” and,
“Can you meet your needs in a way other than through these symptoms?”
These questions are not meant to imply that we have control over all of our symptoms, or that we can prevent every disease with a certain way of thinking or being in the world. My vertigo certainly could have been due to a minor viral infection (though I don't feel unwell) that had been brewing for a couple of weeks, leading to that sensation of imbalance in the first place. Not every symptom requires a deeper look and some do require a medical assessment. However, often looking past the surface and the obvious, or the simple medical diagnosis, can provide powerful insight into our current state of being, helping us to identify what is out of balance in our life – physical, nutritional, emotional, relationship, professional, spiritual, creative, or other needs. Because there is no disconnect between what goes on in the mind and body, physical symptoms can create emotional reactions and emotional states can create physical symptoms.
To add further to the problem, when we feel our needs are not being met, when we are not in harmony with our own selves, we tend to take poorer care of ourselves – eating carbs and sugar to fill ourselves up, overeating, not exercising, engaging in negative thought patterns, etc. Ultimately, unmet needs and poor habits can lead to actual diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, and even cancer!
The Menstrual Cramps Example
One patient, saddled with horrible monthly menstrual cramps that kept her in bed for 2 days every cycle, upon reflecting on the first question, said, “The pain makes me take a couple of days off each month. I take a day off from work because I can’t possibly work with pain that even medication doesn’t help. My husband knows those are the 2 days each month he needs to be fully present for the kids after school. He cooks, takes them to their activities. I usually lay in bed with a hot water bottle and just read a novel.” She finally blurted out, with tears in her eyes, “This is the only way I get any time to myself.”
She wasn’t creating these symptoms on purpose and she wasn’t faking. She really had severe menstrual pain. When reflecting upon how she might reframe her need for time off, she initially had a lot of reasons and excuses for why she couldn’t take time just to care for herself. It’s common for women to feel we can’t take time off, whether from work or family responsibilities, to take care of our own needs. It’s no surprise that symptoms such as menstrual pain, PMS, and headaches are leading causes of missed workdays for women!
Probing a little deeper, my patient with the menstrual cramps started to work with me to problem solve around getting some time to herself in a positive constructive way, to see if this would improve her symptoms and bring more balance to a life which she felt left no time for her. She was going to start taking some time at the local coffee shop one evening each week on the way home from work, to read a novel and have tea. Additionally, she was going to start taking a few supplements she’d not been making time for in the morning in her busy rush to get everyone out the door to their respective schools and jobs, and she was going to take a women’s yoga class. And sure enough, over time, her symptoms began to improve.
Listening to Body Speak
Body Speak is a powerful language. You’ve heard of trusting your gut? Body Speak is exactly that though not all of the messages come from our gut. You can learn to hear and use your Body Speak as a physical and mental health-promoting tool. It’s all about listening to the cues your own body sends or even words that you choose. For example, me saying that things felt “spinning out of control and imbalanced” for weeks was my cue to do something to get my life in order – before getting vertigo!
Body Speak awareness can enhance your health and feeling of being “centered” and clear. It can help you make excellent choices for yourself and even professionally. It can, for example, help you to be more aware of:
- How you feel when you eat various foods (both your mood when eating them and how the foods affect how you feel afterward)
- Emotions associated with your lifestyle habits – which feel good to you and which don’t
- How you feel in various relationships, social and professional settings
- Where in your body you hold stress
To start to identify your Body Speak, simply learn to pay more attention to your body in an intentional way on a daily basis, even just for 1 to 5 minute check-ins throughout the day.
Here's a simple exercise to get you started:
Sit upright in a chair or lay on the ground and close your eyes, breathing naturally at first, then gradually more slowly and deeply. Feel either your feet on the ground, or the parts of your body touching the ground. Just feel that contact, that grounding with the earth. Then deepen the breath. Now let your breath wander throughout the body to any areas the feel tight, blocked, or stuck. Use your breath to imagine massaging out that tension or releasing the blockage. Is there anything in your life that you associate with this tension you're holding? Linger on how you can use your breath and attention to identify areas in your body that feel tense or blocked. Hold this awareness so that when you return to regular awareness, you can draw on that skill to use anytime without even having to go into a meditative state. Use this new awareness to make adjustments in your life based on physical signals – your Body Speak.
In addition, pay attention to your normal daily body signals and respond to them rather than put them off. I have treated hundreds of urinary tract infections in women who put off urinating when they first notice the need, until they have to go badly. Bacteria love this! Similarly, many women become constipated because they ignore the urge to have a BM. Paying attention to the common body signals will make you more aware of your Body Speak.
Let Your Body Be Your Compass
Because your body messages quickly mirror your body’s perceptions of your environment and situation, your body can help you to adjust your course or path – much like a compass, in almost any social setting.Your body can be your compass in helping you to make important decisions in your life whether to do with food choices, relationship choices, or transforming your career from something that makes you feel sick to something you love! It's all about paying attention to how you feel, matching that with how you want to feel, and adjusting your life until you have congruence. If you are deciding whether to say yes or no to something (or someone) for example, a job, a relationship, an opportunity, a night out with the girls when you'd rather be at home in an Epsom salts bath, take a minute to tune into your inner messages – how do you feel about each choice. Your body can really guide you. It’s your North Star! Follow it!
As for me, I am going to take a dose of my own medicine. I am reflecting on having patience with myself, greater centeredness, and focusing on creating my own version of success – which includes making time to relax on a regularly scheduled basis – time to unwind rather than spin out — to be more present when I am with my loved ones, and not hit SEND hastily – ever again! I am identifying how I want to feel in this life – peaceful, caring, generous, confident, centered, trusting, connected with others – in addition to manifesting more traditional forms of prosperity which allow me to live the life I dream of and share with others through philanthropy, and making time to check in with myself as to whether I am creating a life that achieves my feeling goals.
I am so excited to have opportunities to rock my work out to the world in bigger, broader ways – and to help each of you take your health back into your own hands. Every now and then, I get a reminder to do so myself!
Do you have symptoms that serve in any way? Ways you might better meet your needs rather than getting sick? Has your Body Speak ever given you great advice? Have you ever hit SEND and regretted it? How do you define a successful life? Please do tell in the comment spaces below!