One of the phrases I hear thrown around in healthcare circles is, “Listen to your body”.
It’s interesting, because the implication is that the body is telling you what you need to hear in order to (fill in the blank): make better choices, choose the right foods, exercise appropriately, drink sensibly, rest as necessary.
This also reinforces the sense that somewhere in modern society we have lost touch with our physiology, becoming subsumed in a world of social media and external verification/quantification systems that we are no longer able to understand and behave according to our biological needs.
But how true is this, for starters?
Are We Out Of Touch WIth Our Bodies?
In order to ascertain whether we’ve lost touch with our bodies, we have to determine what they would (typically) be trying to say. Most of our body’s messaging systems are wired for three things: eat, run, mate. Broadening this out a little, it could be argued that the body is signalling, safety vs. threat, hunger or fullness and attractiveness and fertility. Pretty much everything our body can tell us revolves around these three spectrums.
You will often hear complaints that Big Food has hijacked our tastebuds and manipulated our hunger signals such that we are unable to hear our own needs for food accurately. The argument is that we are unable to stop because of some palatability factors induced by chemical processing of ingredients, flavours and textures.
This may be true… but this doesn’t at all mean that you’re not listening to your body. In fact, you’re listening perfectly as you reach to the depths of the Pringles tube or hear the hollow scrape of spoon on the base of an ice cream carton. You didn’t ignore your body’s hunger, you listened to your body’s pleasure centres lighting up and driving you to continue eating.
I would argue, therefore, that we are perfectly in tune with our bodies – listening appropriately to ancient biological drives to hoover up highly palatable foods. What’s different is the environment in which we live where such foods are a Deliveroo away.
So how about exercise?
From both sides, people are criticised for not listening to their bodies, whether they are behaving slothfully or pushing themselves far too hard. Those who never exercise are not listening to the body’s natural desire for movement, apparently. Those who are CrossFitting like their lives depend on it are pushing beyond their body’s cries for rest.
But again I hear myself question the validity of that argument. Those who prefer the couch over CrossFit are merely acquiescing to the genuine fact that there are no predators to run from, no food to harvest nor manual labour to be achieved before sunset. Realistically there are no pressing jobs for humans in modern life which require any form of physical exertion. The sloth is simply in perfect synchronicity with his environment – nothing to be done, therefore do nothing.
As for the CrossFit athlete, gym bunny or weekend warrior, they are tuning into an altogether different though equally compelling ancient human desire: competition. Whether with themselves, with the display board with the WOD or with their fellow fitness buddies, competition and improving our metrics as measured by an external (visible) system is highly, highly motivating. As humans we are designed to want to outperform our fellow man in a fight to the top of the tribe. CrossFit, with all of the over-exertion that can accompany it, is merely the modern day equivalent of Gladiator battles. As such, it is normal to push beyond physical limitations. You are not proving your physical capacity as much as you are proving a point.
Then there’s sleep. We’re all, I think, getting slightly more now, aren’t we? But it’s only because people like Arianna Huffington made it popular to sleep. Before that it was prized to masochistically sleep for only 4 hours, with the perception that you are more effective if you snooze for less time. This is scientific nonsense, of course, but regardless of the restorative nature of sleep people aren’t usually unaware of their body’s signals. Not sleeping the 7-9 hours you need is rarely, if ever, because you can’t hear your body say it’s tired. More commonly it’s life commitments, work, the commute, the kids, sleeping environments or other factors which demand that you ignore your body clock and wake when you want to rest.
Yet again – we’re listening to our bodies perfectly. We can choose to ignore their noises, always. But it doesn’t mean we’re deaf.
Listening to Your Body To Heal
I guess the phrase “Listen to Your Body” should be expanded, therefore, to reflect what the statement truly means. It doesn’t just mean listen… because you’re already doing that. It means,
“Listen to your body… and act according to what you hear.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. This is more accurate for healing purposes because it’s basically saying, “Stop ignoring your body’s pleas for you to behave differently.”
This doesn’t challenge the overeating of nutritionally poor foods, nor the competitive drives of over-exerting athletes, however. So what we’re really saying is “Listen to everything that your body tells you, not just in the moment when you might get overexcited and eat too much/push too hard in the gym – but also in the moments afterwards when you feel rubbish because you did”.
Not so catchy, but perhaps more accurate.
It’s also neglecting to remember one thing about human physiology. It is designed to keep us safe, warm, rested and procreating. That means that every message we get to ‘listen’ to will operate along these guidelines. You might think that that’s great because it’s perfectly designed for us to prosper as human beings, but there are cases in which tuning in to your body might not be precisely, initially, what the doctor ordered.
Whilst procreation and food consumption are vital parts of our primal needs, it is my belief that the most base signals in the human body arise out of protection. We can eat and make babies later – survival is always prioritised in the now.
This is why the body produces cortisol and adrenaline preferentially to other hormones. In the cascade of hormone creation, baby making comes a poor second to giving us the ability to flee from threats. Hunger signals are higher on the pecking order, but most likely because the way we fuel ourselves is directly correlated to our capacity to fight and/or run from danger.
Listening to Your Body With Immune Dysregulation, Autoimmunity & Chronic Illness
All of which brings me to my patient population (and, historically, myself). When you are living in a body that is permanently on high alert because of physiological changes, your body will always be emitting fear-based signalling. In my experience, this is a really important compounding factor for anyone with chronic, long term illness. The issues we begin with are reinforced and magnified by the state of stress any suffering sends our body towards. Our bodies have messages to warn us of danger. Those messages are fear, panic, anxiety and nervousness.
Though there are many other factors, this is perhaps the simplest way to explain why physical ill health cannot exist without some degree of mood alteration and mental health effects.
So if you have been struggling with an illness for a long time, yes it can be argued that you should listen to your body and interpret the symptoms with the understanding that they’re trying to tell you something. In a way, this is what I do with my clients – I am trying to understand the ways in which their bodies are struggling through interpreting the signals given off in their symptoms.
But for most of my clients, and for anyone who has struggled with their illness for a long time, it is important to recognise one thing:
Our ability to discern real threats from potential threats and from non-threatening things, whilst chronically ill, is severely impaired.
Actually, this is just the body’s defense mechanism. In recognising that strength and fortitude are being undermined somewhere by physical compromise, the body will naturally become more quick to defend itself against potential threats and dangers. This is simple overprotection based on the fact that should an attack come we are probably unable to win a fight, The pre-emptive strike, safe rather than sorry immune response is invoked so that we attack more than we should, just to ensure we are safe.
This is the classic beginnings of immune dysregulation – where an initial insult causes internal fragility which is protected by an immune response which then becomes overbearing and overzealous to multiple perceived threats, whether they present a danger or not.
What takes someone from a normal, quick and temporary immune activation to a permanently upregulated immune condition is determined by a host of factors: genetic susceptibilities, lifestyle factors and exposures, toxins, GI health, liver health etc.
But in simple terms, the body is – even in immune dysregulation – doing exactly what it is supposed to do: protect itself against enemies. The only issue is that it now sees potential threats in absolutely everything, even when no danger is present.
So in this situation – when everything is a threat that must be tackled or run from – should we still listen to our body?
To me, this is precisely the challenge of working with those with immune dysregulation, autoimmunity and chronic conditions. It’s why I love what I do – because this is where the science of physiology meets the art of integrating it into the human condition.
There is a very fine line that we have to tread as practitioners, listening to the fears of the body just enough to not tip a client into a real immune meltdown, whilst always attempting to retrain and recalibrate the threat sensors of the immune system.
My first job is ascertaining what upregulated the immune sensors in the first place. This is not simple because it involves everything – from birth, childhood, to the environment of adolescence and the behaviour modelled by parents. It careers on through illnesses and antibiotic use, toxin exposure and environmental pollutants – all the way to relationships, social stigmas and inclusions, work and life stress, financial worries and home life environment. Add into that all of the emotional and mental perceptions we build about life itself through our years and unravelling the messages of threat which are sensitising the immune system becomes a challenge.
During this process, I do insist that my clients start to listen to their body. But listening to your body with chronic illness and immune dysregulation is interesting. I don’t know whether it’s because we’ve spent years with our bodies screaming at us that we have become immune, or because we don’t like what our bodies are saying so we’ve stopped listening – but I typically find that stopping and listening to the body is a tough ask for those with chronic illnesses.
One of the features of such conditions is that we are almost permanently adrenalised and life feels like we’re running on a treadmill all the time. It’s not that we’re constantly active, it’s just that somehow (even in the middle of profound exhaustion) we can feel like we’re always moving. This movement has to stop, and we need to sit in our skin for long enough to hear the actual messages.
So often we’re focussed away from illness – towards a future, fighting the issues, pulling ourselves out of things.
What I ask my clients to do first is stop running and seeking to change. In order to make any discernable inroads we need to stop the endless mental machinations and fears and start to tune in to the spaces between the panic.
This is where I ask my clients to listen to their body whilst engaging their internal bulls**t filter.
I’m not interested in discounting everything that the body (running fear pattern messages) has to say – just the nonsense. So I ask my clients to engage their bulls**t filter. We all have one, and the goal is to discern when we’re being fuelled by irrationality and an upleveled response to non-threats, or when we’re legitimately in danger.
Unfortunately, sometimes the body is just sending out so many alarms that we literally can’t isolate signal from noise because inside us it all feels like signals. Listening to a dizzying array of signals is neither healthy, nor appropriate. Though routinely it is what we, with chronic illnesses, do. Retreating into isolation, avoiding so many substances/foods/experiences/chemicals etc. etc. becomes a way of life which doesn’t keep us safe, just keeps the signals lower than they would be otherwise.
LIstening to the body in these circumstances leads to a self-imposed prison.
If Not Listening… Then What?
Sometimes, instead of listening, we just need a good talking to…
This is not said to be cruel or over challenging, because in reality my coaching isn’t like this. It is more about gentle persuasion.
Once you recognise that your symptoms are an out-of-control attempt to keep you ‘safe’, a degree of compassion for your body begins to dawn. The end goal is appreciation and gratitude for it – but getting there is, I acknowledge, a bit of a journey…
So we start with the frank acceptance that your body is just trying to keep you safe, it’s just got the wrong idea about what danger is…
And then we start to retrain.
The biggest part of my clinical coaching is taking clients from the space where everything is a threat to a more peaceful, comfortable existence. I use all manner of techniques, and have always intrigued by neurofeedback methods and medicinal herb use (like psilocybin) which can recalibrate the brain’s perceptions of external factors of life.
However, the most powerful person in the journey from a state of high alert to a place of appropriate reactions – is the client themselves.
This is one reason why I don’t use the supposedly ‘magical’ biohacks – because they deny the client the most important part of this process… witnessing the journey.
The body learns quickest with feedback – and so this is almost like ancient exposure therapy of hypnosis practitioners. But what is really happening is that you are showing the body, brain and being that life is safe. Exactly how we do that is client-specific, because a lot depends on how their nervous system and immune system were triggered in the first place. It may be that there’s still infections, toxins, viruses etc. keeping the body triggered. It may be memories and old emotions keeping us locked in a state of reactivity.
But all the time in my work I am moving my clients from a place where their bodies are screaming so much that they can’t afford to listen, to the point where their body’s signals become so appropriately sensitised to their environment that they are able to sit within their skin again without feeling at risk of constant threat. This is not about fixing anything – because nothing is really broken. It’s simply about turning down the volume, eliminating the feedback and distortions, and allowing a quiet calm to be the default state.
Listening to your body is all well and good. But it’s probably worth making sure that it’s saying truthful and appropriate information first – rather than filling your head with doubts, fears, avoidance strategies and panic. If a peaceful body sounds fantastical to you, I’d encourage you to get in touch with me (link here). I love taking people from their place of physical over-reactivity and mental paranoia to a place of stillness and strength. From this place, listening to your body serves a purpose – because from this place of stillness, your body actually has lots of useful things to say…