THE BLOG
10/07/2013 11:17 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Your Body Is Talking. Are You Listening?

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Photo credit: Julie Dermansky

Over the last decade working in hospitals, I was surprised by the number of times learning the skills to communicate helped alleviate my patients' physical symptoms and even helped them get rid of a dependence on certain medications.

Research shows that communicating effectively helps us better cope with stress, nurtures our relationships and enhances our health and self esteem. Those who have solid relationships where they can share their emotions and feel supported tend to live longer. Those who feel misunderstood report a higher rate of depression, which weakens the immune system and makes them more vulnerable to disease. (1) If more people knew this, I bet they'd get serious about having courageous conversations, no matter how awkward they might feel initially.

Anyone can learn to communicate better, and a great place to start is with your own internal communication. When the internal signals you receive from your body match your values and the actions you take, you will likely feel calm, peaceful and aligned. When you're not aligned (in other words, when you override your body's signals and take action that is different from what you really want) you may feel overwhelmed, upset or disconnected. How could you possibly communicate effectively with others when you are ignoring what your own body is telling you?

Listen to Your Body's Signals

Your body is sending you messages, whether you're aware of them or not. These physiological signals are unique for each individual. For example, some people experience a racing heart because they're nervous about having a tough conversation. Others feel low energy for the same reason. Stress may cause one person's stomach to churn and another to start sweating excessively. How does your body communicate with you and demand your attention?

For a long time, I didn't recognize my own alarm signals. As a physician, I had learned to override by body's signals to endure a rigorous training with 36-hour continuous shifts. My throat used to tighten up so much that I'd have to leave the hospital to get fresh air whenever our chief asked, "Who is going to volunteer to cover the night shift?" Still, I would often commit to the extra shifts even when I was exhausted, just because I wanted to be perceived as a team player. Physical signals from your body can mean that you need medical attention, so always make sure to get checked out by your health professional first. I consulted two physicians who verified there was nothing physically wrong with my throat. It was only then that I realized I was ignoring my body's messages. When I said yes to the team, I was saying no to my own self-care.

Now that I can decipher my body's signals, my throat constriction acts as a friendly reminder not to over commit.

Whatever the signal, the message is clear. Your body is talking to you.
Are you listening?

To tune in to your body, consider these three questions:
1. In what circumstance do you experience the most difficulty communicating?
2. What physical signals from your body tell you that it's challenging?
3. What do you do with that information?

Recognize Your Numbing Strategies

Our body's physiological signals (e.g., jaw clenching, stomach churning), can be uncomfortable. Rather than listening to these internal signals, we often use our own time-tested numbing strategies that work -- temporarily, anyway. This is how we ignore the messages coming from our bodies, rather than taking the time to address the root cause. Do any of these common strategies sound familiar?

The Sugar-Caffeine Buzz Strategy -- My presentation got criticized in front of everyone -- I feel sick to my stomach. I need a chocolate chip cookie and a double latte so I can get back to work.

The Numb It Out Strategy -- I've been in this relationship way too long. I don't want to deal with it today. Every muscle in my body feels tense. A few glasses of wine will take the edge off and get me through the night.

The Denial Strategy -- My virtual world is much easier to deal with. My real life gives me a headache -- literally. If I call my brother, he'll probably ask if he can borrow money again. Let me see what's happening online.

Whether you use sugar and caffeine, numb out with alcohol or simply avoid the conversation all together, these strategies all have something in common. They work -- for a few minutes -- to change how you feel. And if you're really good at it, they work for months and even years. Call them what you will, the truth is they're all Band-Aids. They are temporary strategies that don't solve the underlying problem that our bodies are trying to alert us to.

Once you are able to recognize and decipher your body's signals for the warnings that they are, you are better prepared to engage in effective communication.

To identify your strategies, consider these three questions:
1. When you've agreed to do something you didn't want to do, what brings you comfort? (That's your strategy!)
2. If you gave the strategy a name, what would it be?
3. How long is the strategy effective?

Friend Yourself

To "friend" another nowadays takes the click of a mouse. To friend yourself is a much more difficult task. It means considering your own needs and wants as you engage with the world. It's a delicate balance and a constant negotiation. It's also learned behavior; because it's not something we typically learn growing up.

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and our smart phones making us available 24/7, balancing work and home life is getting tougher every day. Yes, we're mobile, but are we ever really off? As the world becomes more and more connected, isn't it astonishing that many of us manage to stay current with the status updates of our 500-plus Facebook friends? Yet when was the last time you checked your body's status update? It's probably time to friend yourself.

Join on the comments below and tell me:
1. What strategies you use to tune out of your body?
2. When you tune in to your body, what does it tell you?

-- Doctor Neha

References:

1. The Healthy Mind Healthy Body Handbook, David S. Sobel, M.D. and Robert Ornstein, Ph.D., page 124.

Neha Sangwan, M.D., CEO of Intuitive Intelligence is an Internal Medicine physician and corporate communication consultant who empowers people toward better health by teaching them practical communication tools to strengthen their relationships, decrease their stress levels and create the life they want. Learn more about her on her website, DoctorNeha.com. You can also subscribe to her newsletter, become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or watch her videos on Youtube.

For more by Neha Sangwan, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

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