In our culture, lack of sleep is worn like a badge of honor. We glorify busyness. Very few things cause us to change up our usual routine or do anything other than what we expect of ourselves. We tend to run on overdrive, barreling through the day’s to-do lists regardless of what we are feeling, to the point that we often don’t even realize what we are feeling—and not just emotionally.
We often suppress or ignore physical and emotional feelings that get in the way or slow us down—feelings like exhaustion, pain, stress, sadness, or anxiety. Obviously, there are times when we need to push through despite our feelings of discomfort, whether due to competitive sports or an impending deadline. But, often we aren’t even aware of the signals our body is giving us to slow down, stop, or choose another activity or path for the day, much less when it’s appropriate or even necessary to do so.
The physical is a window into the emotional
In children, physical symptoms are often signs of emotional distress. For instance, in my work as a marriage and family therapist, I worked with a young boy who was having unexplained gastrointestinal issues. No cause could be discerned by his physician, so they recommended therapy. After working with him and his father, we discovered that his stomach symptoms were his way of expressing distress about his parents’ recent divorce. This is a very common pediatric response to emotional distress. Children don’t usually have the ability to be fully aware of the emotions they are feeling, so the emotions manifest physically.
This doesn't only occur with kids; it also happens to adults if we continually ignore our emotions, are under chronic stress or anxiety, or have experienced trauma. Marriage and family therapist Dr. Susanne Babbel explains, “Many people are already familiar with the fact that emotional stress can lead to stomach aches, irritable bowel syndrome, and headaches, but might not know that it can also cause other physical complaints and even chronic pain. One logical reason for this: studies have found that the more anxious and stressed people are, the more tense and constricted their muscles are, over time causing the muscles to become fatigued and inefficient.” Clearly, the physical and emotional parts of the human person are intricately connected. If the emotional aspect is not being tended to, then it makes sense that these emotions can present physically, as if our body is shouting, “Hey, pay attention to me!”
My own experience
When I was in the throes of full-time graduate school and part-time work, I was constantly on the move: going to classes, reading, writing papers, seeing clients, teaching, meeting with supervisors, being evaluated, and trying to maintain a healthy marriage and decent social life. I was burning both ends of the candle, but I thought I was fine—this was just what I had come to see as normal.
During this time, I had several dental appointments for a throbbing tooth that kept bothering me. I was sure I needed a root canal for a decaying tooth, but after several evaluations, the dentists assured me I didn’t—I was shocked. Several weeks later I was sitting writing a paper with an approaching deadline, and suddenly I noticed I was clenching and grinding the left side of my teeth—exactly where I had been having the tooth pain that merited all those appointments. Of course, at the time, I thought this pain was due to the mysterious dental problem, and that the momentary clenching was just making it worse.
However, in the next few weeks, I caught myself clenching and grinding my teeth nearly every time I was writing a paper, studying for a test, or trying to finish reading for a class—it was a tell for stress that I had completely missed. Every time I caught myself doing this, I stopped clenching, and after a few weeks, my tooth pain was completely gone. For someone who identifies as a fairly self-aware person, I couldn’t believe that all this time I hadn’t noticed myself grinding my teeth to the point of intense pain!
The body’s cues
Grinding teeth, biting nails, bouncing your knees, clamminess, and being fidgety in general are just some of the common signs of stress, anxiety, fear, or anger. Curling your toes, making fists, pulling at hair, or picking at skin can also be signals of such uncomfortable emotions. Stomach pain, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, and the aforementioned chronic pain can be physical manifestations of emotional stress, sadness, or even trauma. Even fatigue, muscle tightness, or pain can be the body’s way of conveying an emotion or mental issue rather than a physical one. Chronic rapid heart rate and chest tightness, for example, may be physical cues of these emotions, particularly anxiety and fear (but, of course, they could also be signs of a serious physical condition).
All these cues are the body’s way of physically manifesting an emotion. Unfortunately, many of us push past these types of physical cues until a more serious health issue shows up. Such bodily cues may be a sign that we need to take some deep belly breaths, take a break, decrease stimulation, stop multitasking, or just acknowledge whatever we’re feeling if we haven’t yet. Or, they may be signs that we need to scale back on things we’ve taken on, see a therapist, or implement some boundaries.
In my case, I was telling others and myself that I was fine, that I could handle everything. But becoming aware of this physical sign of stress made me realize I was more stressed than I had let myself believe. As is often the case, I didn’t pay close attention to my mental or emotional state until it was taking a toll on my physical health. While I couldn’t scale back on my graduate school duties, I did learn to say “no” to additional opportunities—both professional and social—and I started seeing a therapist myself.
How to tune in
If you’re not really sure where to start when it comes to listening to your body, you’re not alone. In our fast-paced culture, it is common to ignore the body’s cues to heed various emotions in order to achieve and excel or get where you’re going.
The start of the day is a good time to check in with yourself before the day’s distractions and to-do’s take over. Even before you get out of bed, you can keep your eyes closed and bring your attention to your toes, then slowly work your way up your legs, chest, back, arms, neck, face, and head to notice any points of physical tension or tightness. Once you find a spot of tension, breathe in for a count of four, then exhale for a count of five, imagining you are breathing air to that spot of tension, relieving it.
You can also do this during the day while at work: sitting in your chair, place both feet flat on the ground, close your eyes, relax your jaw, and pay attention to how your toes feel, working up to your head. These simple rituals allow you to become more in touch with your body and what it is trying to tell you about your internal state. Eventually, you’ll develop the ability to notice when you feel “off” physically without going through the whole practice. If you find that you are having a hard time relaxing or letting go of tension once you find it, seeing a therapist could help you discover what may be keeping you from feeling physically well. If you aren’t sure what is causing bodily tension or cues, experience them chronically, or feel that these physical sensations are getting in the way of daily life, it may be more than day-to-day stress causing these symptoms. Whether it is simply daily stress or a more serious past trauma that is contributing to your physical symptoms, a therapist can help you feel better and get back to your best self.
Listening to your body is about heeding the physical cues of mental or emotional distress. As a basic form of self-care, we can tune into our bodies to see what we need. Although self-care can be seen as selfish or even lazy, this form of self-care helps us prevent or heal from burnout, which will help you give more in every facet of your life in the long run. Again, the lesson here is not to give up on your hard work, but rather to tune into your body to know when you can press on and when you really do need to slow down.