Shift Awareness for Well-Being

Your body has a message for you. Are you listening?
By Marc Levin

Our bodies are innately wise and have much to teach us about restoring and preserving our health…if we are willing to listen. A symptom is more than an isolated event. It is a messenger from our body giving us a “heads up” that an underlying problem exists and needs attention. If we learn to pay attention and understand the message provided by these “teaching assistants” sent by our bodies, symptoms become opportunities for implementing changes.

Your Body as a Teacher
Your body is the most brilliant, insightful, caring, nurturing, intuitive, persistent, honest, and knowledgeable teacher you have ever encountered. There is much you can learn if you pay attention to it.

Imagine that you’re on a beach walking barefoot in the sand, and a shell with a jagged edgecuts your heel. Your foot sends a message to your brain that something has happened, and you feel pain in the foot. You didn’t see your foot land on the shell, but because of the pain you’re now feeling, you know something happened.

You now must assess the situation and choose what action to take. Perhaps you put a bandage on the cut (if you happen to have one with you); perhaps you hop to keep pressure off the foot; perhaps you shift your weight out to your toes, reducing the pressure on your heel; or perhaps you choose to walk normally and endure the pain created by each new step.

Because your observer—your mind—was alerted to the injury, you had the opportunity to choose how to respond. If your observer didn’t notice the pain, you wouldn’t have been aware that you had a cut and would have taken no action. If you took no action, the cut might have become infected and progressed into a major medical condition—one that would have been avoided by treating the cut when it occurred.

In this example, your body just functioned as your teacher. It presented you with a situation where you were free to ignore the pain and suffer the consequences, or take appropriate action. You choose what you learn from the lesson.

Mind-Body Connection
Your body and mind are interconnected, and each impacts the other. When you hurt your foot, your body shares this information with your mind, and you feel pain. When you’re worried about something, there is a physical response in your body. When you’re excited and happy, your body has a different physiological response.

Some people get sweaty palms when they’re nervous. Some get a sharp pain in their shoulders and neck when they feel they carry “the weight of the world.” Some people get headaches when they haven’t eaten properly. Some breathe shallowly and quickly when they’re anxious about something. These are all examples of your body providing you with information that allows you to take appropriate action.

If your observer is alert and you notice the physical phenomena present in your body, you obtain valuable information that you can use to impact your health and wellness. A pain that you’re feeling may be the result of an external incident such as banging your shoulder or cutting your foot; however, if there was not such an event, a physical ailment or change in your body’s status could be caused by some internal condition. If you pay attention to your body and address early signs suggesting that something may be wrong, you may be able to prevent larger problems from developing. Addressing these larger, more serious problems may be more painful and costly, and may require more invasive interventions.

Heeding the “Warning Lights”
Imagine that you’re driving your car and a red indicator light comes on indicating that the car is low on oil. If you don’t notice the warning light, you may not know that there is a problem, and the oil level continues to drop until the car develops major engine problems. Another possibility is that you see the warning light but put a sticker over it to cover it up so you can ignore it. Since you don’t see the warning sign anymore, you assume everything is fine and take no corrective action, but your denial doesn’t affect the car’s functioning, and the oil level gets lower and lower. Eventually, this option leads to the same conclusion: major problems. A third option is to pay attention to the red warning light and add oil to the car in response to its signal that oil is needed. This option avoids more serious and costly problems that develop if you choose not to address the cause of the problem.

Similarly, our bodies flash “warning lights” in the form of symptoms when something requires attention. If we’re not experienced in observing our body and paying attention to it, we may not notice the symptom. Or we may notice it, but ignore it or mask it without investigating the message it’s sending us. We may choose, however, to pay attention to the symptom, take steps to determine the underlying cause, and then take action to address it. We can learn to interpret the messages our body sends us.

Think of a symptom that you routinely or periodically notice in your body. This symptom is your body alerting you to the need for some kind of action or change. Whether you tackle the issue yourself or enlist the help of a professional, methodically evaluate the symptom and its potential underlying cause.

For example, notice when the symptom occurs. Does it occur throughout the day or only at certain times? In the morning or evening? When you’re sitting, standing, lying? Does it occur every day or only periodically? Do you notice it in conjunction with a particular activity? Is it familiar? Have you had it in the past? Does it move about your body, or is it fixed? How long does the symptom last? Is the amount of time consistent? Under what circumstances is the time longer or shorter? What are the circumstances or actions that make the symptom dissipate or disappear? What are your eating habits before it appears? Your sleeping habits? What does it feel like? Is it sharp or dull? Throbbing or persistent? The objective is to gather information and try to isolate the situations and phenomena that surround the symptom’s occurrence.

Paying attention to your body may allow you to be much more aware of minor symptoms before they become major problems. You may view your body differently, and thus, be more likely to take action before something becomes a serious illness. You may function differently with regard to your pain or illness.

Being healthy does not mean being free from all symptoms. Making the shift to viewing your body as wise and your symptoms as teachers or messengers that provide valuable information about your body will allow you to take control of your own health and wellness.

Marc Levin is the author of the recently released book Eight Shifts for Wellness: Practical Transformative Steps to Enhance Health, Wellness, and Well-Being (Golden Nuggets Press, 2011). More information about him and the eight shifts is available at eightshifts.com.