The Importance of ‘Listening to your Body’
The phrase ‘listen to your body’ is an expression that gets a lot of limelight (and I certainly use it regularly), but is very rarely clarified. So I thought it might be helpful to ponder what it actually means to ‘listen to our body’? How can we hear what it is trying to say? And why does it matter?
Paying attention to ourselves and our needs is certainly an important skill, but it can take a little time to master – particularly if we are disconnected from our bodies, very stressed, tired or used to distracting ourselves constantly with busyness, social media or other habits. Which, let’s face it, many of us are.
Yet I think it is also a crucial skill to work on if we wish to establish a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. To be able to acknowledge and respond to our body’s ever-changing needs with compassion and respect goes a very long way to helping us feel our best. Whether that is taking time to assemble a nourishing meal when we are hungry, prioritising an early night when we’re tired, hydrating when we are thirsty, or stretching when we’re stiff and achy, there are a million ways we can consciously respond to our body’s needs, but the first step for all of this is to just listen.
Here are a few tips to help get you started:
Understand that we are all unique
We all have different needs – both physiologically and emotionally – and those needs might also change over time. ‘Listening to our body’ first means recognising that what works for another person might not work for us. Advice that is shared online or in print (even in my books, website & social media) may not suit you as a unique individual. Kind suggestions from friends and families might be great for them, but not for us. Understanding our differences and sticking to what we know is helpful or unhelpful personally is OK. Just as it is OK to ask for impartial, appropriately qualified professional support if we are unsure.
It’s just as important to be able to know when advice might not meet our needs as it is to know when it might.
Appreciate that signs might be subtle, and can easily be overlooked
The body communicates in symptoms and feelings, not words. Sometimes, these signs are very subtle and require focused attention to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, however, we live in a constantly distracted world, where it is increasingly common to go through an entire day without having to be alone with our thoughts for even a minute – thanks to our phones, tablets, computers, TVs and all manner of other shiny devices. The mental chatter and noise that these create, can easily drown out the little subtle signs of our body not feeling quite ‘right’.
A good question to ask ourselves on this topic is ‘How much time each day do I spend without other people’s thoughts in my head?’ This could be from the radio, music, online or written content, podcasts, audiobooks, social media, books, magazines, emails, messages etc. Our minds need some daily down time (outside of sleep) without external inputs, in order to process thoughts and communicate needs. I generally work to the guideline of 3-5 minutes of quiet or undistracted time for every hour we have been awake.
A wonderful tool for helping with this is yoga, or any other mindfulness practice. But if this doesn’t sit comfortably with you, then being out in nature, taking a bath or shower, pottering about the house (gardening or even cleaning can be good), walking, swimming or being creative can all work well too, so long as we do so without podcasts, radio or musical distractions.
I think of it as allowing my mind a little time to coast in neutral.
The importance of making connections
Even if we are conscious of symptoms or signs in our body, sometimes it can be really tricky to make the connections between what might be triggering or exacerbating them: Was it the result of a really stressful few days at work? Or that bad night’s sleep? Or the way my desk is set up? Or that meal I had earlier?
This is precisely when a symptom diary or journal can be really useful. There is lots of information on exactly how to do this (and a printable weekly diary) in this article. Feel free to make notes beyond food & drink though – it’s a worthwhile exercise to consider the wider aspects of your lifestyle too. It’s also a really useful document to share with your healthcare providers if needs be.
Simply ask the question
I admit that I have a quite long-standing mindfulness practice, so this one might not be everybody’s cup of tea. But I am often amazed at how specific the response in my mind is, if I simply allow myself to sit quietly for a couple of minutes, and then ask gently ‘How are you doing?’.
It can be followed up a couple of minutes later with ‘What do you need right now?’. The body and unconscious mind hold a great deal of wisdom and intuition. Sometimes, just asking the question can give us the answers we need. These are also lovely journaling questions to try if that feels more comfortable to you.
P.s., So often, the response to this question for me is ‘rest’. It says a lot about our frantically paced world, I think.
Honouring what is being communicated
This is a bit of a tricky one, because I know that life is busy and overwhelming and it can be incredibly hard to find the time, energy and other resources to prioritise taking care of ourselves. But this is just a gentle reminder that often, self-care practices don’t have to be grandiose to be effective. If your body is pleading for rest, is there a way of getting an early night just one day this week? Or if it is nature and movement you need, could you find 10 minutes for a quick walk? Or perhaps aim to batch cook something nourishing at the weekend so you can enjoy nutritious, home-cooked food a few times during the week?
Once we have been through the process of recognising the signs our body has communicated to us, and worked out what might help us find a little more ease, we are then absolutely worthy of the next step of actually honouring those messages – and ourselves – with all the appropriate care and compassion we deserve.
If you’re after a little inspiration for self-care practices, take a look at my article on Non-Food Treats. For lots of quick-and-easy healthy meal ideas, take a look at Simply Good For You. And this article has lots of ideas for getting a great night’s sleep.
Knowing when to ask for help
A crucial aspect of leading a healthy lifestyle is recognising when to ask for help. Health and nutrition professionals are trained to help us make connections and to interpret the signs of the body. Not only can this help to shortcut the process of unpicking exactly what’s going on, but it also shares the responsibility of self-care and provides a very important safety net to pick up on anything potentially concerning.
But asking for help doesn’t have to only mean asking for medical or nutrition support. It could also be asking for help at work, support with childcare, a fairer division of household chores or endless other things. Asking for help, in whatever way we might need it, is never a sign of weakness – but instead a sign of immense strength and insight. Be brave and ask the question.
Please note that the information on this website is provided for general information only, it should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional providing personalised nutrition or lifestyle advice. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider.
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