I hear it a lot. Listen to what your body is telling you. It’s good advice. Usually, that advice is given in the context of physical activity. If your body is tired or needs a rest day, you can usually tell if you pay attention. If we are aware of how our bodies are feeling, it lets us know when to go and when to rest, and where our limits are.
Listening to our bodies isn’t limited only to physical activity, though. Our bodies and minds are connected. When something’s off for me mentally, it’s usually my body that tells me. Sometimes it’s subtle. I’ll be extra tired, or a little weaker than usual. Sometimes it’s not subtle at all, and comes in the form of intense anxiety. Feel that weight crushing down on my chest? That means I need to clear some things out or take a step back.
When I overextend myself mentally, it’s my body that shows it. There’s a whole scale of possible reactions,from simple tiredness and tears to full-blown panic attacks, left crouched on the floor gasping for air.That state of panic is something that I used to know very well. I remember very clearly locking myself in a bathroom stall at school, trying to breathe. Tears streaming down my face. I was completely overextended, in the middle of my undergraduate studies, pulling fourteen hour days at school. I was living on coffee and sugar. My body was screaming at me to stop. To slow down. But I kept pushing, and ended up dropping my classes and spending two months at home, doing nothing, because when I didn’t listen, I completely shut down.
I returned to school, finished my degree, and started graduate school. But, I didn’t learn my lesson. I had some new tools in my pocket that helped me to extend my limits, but they weren’t enough. After many hard lessons, I finally learned to listen.
I pared down. Created space. Stripped away obligations and filler, until the things I was doing in my life were only the bare essentials. For the first time in a long time, I could breathe. I started climbing, learning in a very physical way how to deal with fear and anxiety (and the difference between the two). The weight lifted even more.
It took me more than a decade to learn to really listen. Now I know that my body, the way I feel, is my gauge. It’s my physical gauge, and my mental gauge as well. Sometimes my tolerance levels are higher than others; it all depends on my current situation. Sleep, diet, exercise, and the quality of the things and people I’m filling my time with all determine what that level is at any given time.
Accepting my tolerance level can be difficult when that level is on the low side. It’s hard to just be where I am and work from there, without berating myself for it. In our society, we are told that the more we fill up our lives, the harder we work, the happier we will be. Busy-ness is praised. So it’s easy to think that I should be able to handle more. But, ‘should’ is an evil word. I am where I am.
As I sit here today writing this, I feel the crushing weight of anxiety. It’s always humbling when something that I felt I had under control is suddenly right in front of me again. My instinct is to push through it, pretend like it’s not there. I want to ignore it. But, it’s my body’s way of telling me that something’s off. When I adjust things the right way, that giant weight on my chest will subside.
Your body is your gauge. Learn what your body is telling you, and the subtle differences between its messages. Pay attention, because if you don’t, it will just yell more loudly until you do.