I sat down to write this post yesterday afternoon. I’d just come back from having a haircut and had had a too late afternoon rest. I’d come out of this rest with the frequent fogginess in my head, the tired eyes, the headache and the rather unpleasant sensation that somebody had clamped something tight around my head and my face. It was only as I wrote the title that I saw the irony of it and went off to do something else!
Coming back to it a couple of days later I’m not entirely sure based on the above that I’m particularly qualified to write about listening to your body but I’ll give it a try!
So I was initially going to write my next post about pacing but I realised that in order to this I would have to refer a lot to how important it is to listen to your body as part of effective pacing. So it made sense to write about that first.
I’m going to be honest if I’d been better at listening to my body over the past 10 years I might not be where I am now. I’m not saying that my CFS/ME is entirely down to this – there are lots of factors going on but I’m pretty certain it contributed. It was normal practice for me to power on through in my 30s and early 40s. I struggled with a lot of back pain in my late 20s and 30s but working as a self -employed childminder I kept lifting and pushing buggies around ( a triple buggy at one point!) even when I literally couldn’t stand up straight. When I was on my PGCE I pushed my body to its limit surviving on paracetamol, red wine and very little sleep for about 10 months to the point that I ended up on really strong pain killers for pain in my neck. I look back at it now and realise that this pain wasn’t down to an injury but was my body tensing up through stress and shouting at me to slow down. The biggest warning sign was about 4 years before I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I started having major digestive problems. I was in my 2nd year of teaching and was intent on making a good impression so I ignored a cough which turned into a chest infection and then went into the lining of my lungs. Once this had cleared I started getting stomach pain and a repetitive cough. Investigation showed inflamed stomach lining and the start of an ulcer. Let’s face it a stomach ulcer at the age of 40 isn’t good on any level and I should’ve taken it as a sign that my body really wasn’t happy but I thought my body was invincible, as we all do.
So, no prior to having to manage CFS/ME I was pretty appalling at listening to my body. But to be honest how are you supposed to know what it’s saying to you even if you do try to listen? If I’d had a different sort of intervention at this point ie. not traditional medicine with its painkillers and meds to reduce stomach acid but functional medicine with its holistic approach I might have managed to catch things before they got so bad. But this route isn’t readily available to us until things get so bad that we have no alternative but to try different approaches – which is where I’m at now.
So how big a part does listening to your body play now as I try to navigate the recovery path? The answer is simply huge. It’s all about changing habits – not completing tasks, not starting tasks, asking other people to do tasks for you. And this is mostly based on you learning what your body needs. On a basic level it’s about watching out for the signs that your energy levels are depleting because of what you’re currently doing. If you’re out for a walk and your legs get tired or wobbly then you’ve gone far enough. But the trick is to catch this before it actually happens, which to begin with is tricky because the initial signs might be really small. Plus it’s different for everyone. With practice you can start to pick up what these early signs are for you and once you’ve done that you can pre-empt the more extreme symptoms caused by pushing yourself too far. Sounds simple? It isn’t and I’m not pretending it is or even remotely suggesting I have an easy way to do it. Sorry!
For me the most challenging thing has been listening to my body when doing the things I find the hardest – which are social and cognitive activity. The symptoms kick in for me so soon when having coffee with a friend, reading or using my laptop that if I reacted to them straight away I would never do anything. So for me I’ve had to listen to when they go up a notch. When the tired eyes start to turn into pressure in my face or a slight headache. When noise in the café starts to get more noticeable or when I start to notice a delay in processing what’s being said to me. Like I said it’s different for everyone but this is what I have to look out for.
It’s also important to listen to your body in relation to nutrition. There’s no point in carrying on eating a food which clearly causes an increase in symptoms. Unfortunately it’s not always easy to work out which food is causing problems so you often have to turn detective with food diaries and elimination. Plus sometimes your body reacts to a food when it’s in a heightened stress state but won’t react when you’re more relaxed. I’m pretty sure that I react to a number of foods on the FODMAP diet when my nervous system is on high alert but can eat them happily when all is calm. Not at all confusing in any way!
Then there’s listening to what your body is telling you about what you need to do next. Should you carry on the activity you’re doing? Should you stop doing an activity that is using cognitive energy and swap to something more physical? Should you rest or meditate or eat? I know that if I’ve been doing something cognitive like using my laptop the head symptoms I get will often go if I go and do a physical activity in a mindful way. Even cleaning can ease the symptoms for me. But if I stop using the laptop and meet a friend for a coffee straight after I’m asking for trouble. Equally sometimes an activity that you chose because you thought it would relax you like maybe watching Netflix can move from being helpful to being unhelpful. The OHC call this Environmental Tired – when you have simply done a particular activity for too long and maybe in the same surroundings and just need to do something else. That feeling of complete exhaustion that can creep over you after watching afternoon TV for too long can surprisingly go if you take yourself out for a short walk.
I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that most of my CFS/ME is caused by a totally messed up nervous system – battered from breast cancer – the stress and treatment plus loads of other factors. So for me it’s becoming more vital to listen for signs that my nervous system is becoming hyped either because of activity or thought patterns. For me wobbly legs is a sign of Emotional fatigue rather than physical fatigue. I can happily walk for up to an hour on a good day so if my legs get wobbly it’s usually been triggered by a thought or a situation feeling unsafe. Hot flushes often come when I’ve done something for too long and my body is becoming stressed. The feeling that a clamp is being tightened around my head is a definite sign that I need to relax. Bloating after eating means that my nervous system is affecting my digestion. If my head feels buzzy and my body and brain feel out of synch then I know that going for a walk to divert energy from my nervous system and grounding myself in nature is the way to go.
Obviously it’s very easy to become totally obsessive about listening to your body. Looking out for the smallest symptom or sign and trying to second guess it. If you get to this point the chances are your system will be permanently in a state of stress which will make everything worse anyway. I’ve spent hours trying to work out why my body is doing something peculiar. I think thankfully that I’m now at a place when I can look out for the signs without obsessing.
Sitting at my laptop now I can feel that my eyes have gone from slightly tired to gritty and achy. My head is feeling tight and my hearing has suddenly changed. So it’s time to stop. Maybe I’m not so bad at this after all!