Dear Brain, with love from Your Body
I spotted this wonderful letter on social media by Dawn Arkell, a Pilates Teacher and Women’s Health Coach.
She wrote it whilst recovering from big surgery. I thought it so very beautifully, succinctly and gracefully described something that I often try to communicate that I got in touch and she has kindly let me share it.
Thank you Dawn.
Listen to your body!
I have many, many conversations with my clients, (as well as with my friends and even myself!), about how as humans we rarely give ourselves enough time to recover from anything. It might be simply a long tiring day, a headache or a simple cold, it might be flu or the dreaded covid, it might be minor or major surgery or the ravages of grief and emotional trauma. Almost always we push ourselves to do too much too soon.
It is common to find people in the wellbeing industry talking about the importance of ‘listening to our bodies’. It sounds so wonderfully simple and enduringly sensible. Easy, right?
What it fails to take into account, in its instruction, is that we are more than just a body...
The confusion of being human
Humans are made up of many complicated, and sometimes conflicting, parts. Even each part of us can be thought of as having different parts! And all the bits of this messy cacophony aren’t always in good communication with each other, nor do they always have the same needs and requirements. There may even be times when those needs seem to be in direct opposition with each other.
One good example of this, that I often mention when I’m teaching, is to do with sleep. Most people acknowledge that doing all we can to get good sleep is important and that staying up late, especially if we don’t have the luxury, or ability, to sleep in, will take its toll. As a one off it is usually a fairly temporary impact, although even that can be significant depending on what we have on the next day. Over time, though, we will almost certainly begin to see increasingly negative consequences from a lack of sleep.
An opposing dilemma
Now consider that a dear friend is visiting from out of town. One of those friends who you can pick up where you have left off with, who you can bear your soul to or sit in companionable silence with, who will laugh with you and cry with you and who is willing to see and share your pain.
Perhaps you've had a busy day together with other friends and family and it isn’t until the dark hours, when everyone else is drifting off to bed, that you have that chance for some precious quiet time together. Maybe you have to get up early tomorrow, and you know that if you don’t also head for your rest soon you may be setting up the entire week to follow to be more of a struggle.
Your body may want you to prioritise sleep. Your body may ALWAYS want you to prioritise sleep, but you aren’t just a body. Aspects of your mind, your ability to think for example, and even your emotional resilience to deal with the week ahead might do better for some extra hours of shut eye. But what of your heart, your soul, your human need for love and connection with someone who really ‘gets you’? This might just be one of those occasions where forgoing the longer sleep and, dare I say it, not listening to your body, might be the better choice…?
It isn’t always easy to decide on the best course of action when we are faced with competing self-care needs. Sometimes it can feel like a very straightforward choice but there will be times when the choice is in the greyer and murkier waters of life’s decision making. Unless is it about our survival, there is rarely a ‘right’ answer.
Dawn’s wonderful letter so clearly shows us how much our mind and body can sometimes conflict and even occasionally feel ‘at war’ with one another. Sometimes our body doesn’t seem to tell us until it is too late that we have done too much. Sometimes our mind will be filled with anxiety of the unhelpful kind that leads us to avoid doing things that might have been wonderful through lack of self-belief or worth. Being aware of this potential conflict and lack of communication can be so helpful. Instead of battling and warring with our mind we can slowly begin using it to help us. We can start making our choices more consciously and mindfully in those moments of conflicting needs and when we are at risk of getting caught up in the ‘pushing forward’.
I had a similar ‘big’ operation to Dawn some years ago and it was the first time in my life that I had really experienced not being able to just ‘push on through’. Prior to that I’d mostly been fortunate to be pretty fit and healthy. I wasn’t ill as such but my body needed a lot more time to recover than my mind had bargained for. It was an incredibly humbling experience of having to surrender, over and over again, to the need to rest and take yet more time. Years on I look back and know it was really just a few months but at the time it felt like a lifetime that may never end.
The stories in our minds
Recognising where some of the push and rush comes from can also be helpful. For example, we may come from a family with a strong work ethic. This can be a truly valuable thing but it can also make it hard for us to rest, take time off or just slow down a little without feeling lazy or self-indulgent. We may have absorbed all sorts of ideas, guilt and shame from our experiences and environment that further complicate always being able to make the best choices. We may sometimes busy ourselves to the point of exhaustion to avoid facing our current situation or the emotions bubbling beneath the surface.
And finally, what is perhaps most important to say, (and regular readers won’t be surprised to see it), is that good self-care is ALWAYS a work in progress. As we go through life the goal posts shift constantly. Just when you think you’ve nailed it something changes and you have to readjust and there will always be ways that we can fine tune and listening to all the competing voices more carefully.
And finally, finally, you are a human and can’t always get it right
There really isn’t always a ‘right’ and there will perhaps always be some element of trial and error. If you can try to approach it as an experiment where you have to keep tweaking the conditions until you find the optimum one it gets easier to see the blind alleys as just that, rather than as terrible failures for which you must be judged and do penance. Beating ourselves up about anything rarely helps us to do better.
Keep striving to give all the different parts of you the best care you can but don’t forget that sometimes you will need to decide which to prioritise and learn how to listen through all the conflicting noise to see which is the most important, for you, in each moment.
As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need some help with this, it is a hard thing to do and we all need some help and support with it sometimes.
And a huge thank you to Dawn for letting me share her letter.
© Dr Karen Janes, July 2022
Just in case you can't read it very well in the image here is Dawn's letter again:
Yes, it was another day you rested today and felt like you did nothing.
The truth is, whilst you put your feet up and watched morning tv for the 6th week in a row, I was busy making new connective tissues, mending severed nerve endings and repairing major ligaments.
Whilst you sat quietly reading your book, I was re-connecting neural pathways and adjusting your organs within their new spaces.
So, you may complain that nothing much happened but I'd say that amazing things happened!
Your Body ♥️
Dawn Arkell, Pilates Teacher and Women’s Health Coach