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What does “listen to your body” actually mean?

You may have heard the phrase "listen to your body" before. It's often given as friendly advice, for example when you are on the verge of exhaustion, or when you feel mentally completely stuck.

But what does it really mean, how exactly do you listen to your body, and why is it so important?

Detecting signals of tiredness

There are different ways of listening to your body. When you start meditating, whether it's in a mindfulness course, or with an app, a book, or with meditations that you found on the internet, one of the first things that often happen while you meditate, is that you get very sleepy and tired. Or at least, that's what you think is what happening.

As a matter of fact, it's not the meditation that makes you sleepy. More probably, you become aware of how tired you already were. As long as you are running in the "treadmill" of daily life, continuously getting things done and moving on to the next problem, you will be so pumped up with adrenalin that you don't even notice how tired you are.

It's only when you slow down and turn your attention inwards, that you notice tiredness. And it's a good thing that you become aware of your own tiredness. Because if you don't, and you just keep going, at a certain point you may hit the wall. So, it's much more efficient to listen to your body, respect its signals of fatigue, and build in some rest in your busy schedule. Meditation can help you with that, because it's a moment where you take some time to tune in to yourself and connect with the wisdom of your body.

This is one way of listening to your body, and already a very helpful one because it can help you manage your energy in a better way.

Understanding stress reactions

Next to that, it can help to know that your body makes decisions that you are not always consciously aware of. Your autonomic nervous system, together with your brainstem, is constantly scanning and judging whether situations are "safe" or not. When a situation is judged as unsafe, your stress system will mobilise your energy either to run away or to defend yourself.

This happens extremely quickly, because essentially it's about pure, physical survival. Think of a situation where a car comes speeding at you while you are crossing the street. Your stress system immediately takes over and makes you jump out of the way. It's only afterwards that you start thinking about it.

Things get trickier when it's not so clearly about physical survival. Perhaps you remember saying something in a meeting and people were frowning at you? This also triggers your stress system, and the "unsafe" alarm goes off, mobilising your body to react. The problem is that our brain does not differentiate between a physical threat to our life or an emotional threat – the stress reaction in the body is exactly the same. That is why, in such a situation, you might notice your breath becoming shallow for example, your heartrate going up, or you start sweating.

When you practise meditation, you will learn to recognise such physical stress signals much faster, which can be very useful. Because, what happens next is that your thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) kicks in, trying to help. Unfortunately, it is not always as helpful as you'd like it to be. On the contrary, you can easily get stuck in the miscommunication between your body and your mind.

Sensing rather than thinking

When your thinking mind receives the "unsafe" alarm, it starts doing what it's very good at: thinking.

Obviously, thinking about a problem can be a very good way to come up with a solution. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you just get stuck, turning in loops. Did you ever notice that? That is because your brain gets in the "threat" mode, and starts focusing on everything that is wrong. You just don't see any more creative alternatives anymore. 

It is important to bear in mind that thinking is not separate from the body. Our body and mind act and react as a whole, which means that if we encounter a difficult situation, then there are thoughts, there are emotions, and there are bodily sensations. This all interacts and influences each other, so that we cannot simply "think" our way out of the problem. We have to see it as a whole system, and the body and its sensations are a very important part of it. 

What you can learn by practising meditation is to step out of that kind of unhelpful threat-based thinking and switch more to sensing. This means focusing your attention on the physical sensations: what you feel in your body, where you feel it exactly, how it feels in detail. With a sense of curiosity, not wanting to make anything different but just being open to what's here.

What you can discover by doing that, is that your thoughts calm down and you see more clearly what needs to be done. What you are doing, is making a neurological shift from the stress mode to a more open and creative mode, the "safe" mode, rather than the "threat" mode.

Other ways to make the switch to this safe mode can be to take a few deeper breaths, especially lengthening the exhalation, or bringing a smile to your face. Even if you have to force that a little bit, just give it a try. Making these subtle physical changes will signal back to your brain that things are safe(r).

Don't take my word for it; try it out! You can also do a "body scan" meditation and practise this a few times, just as an experiment.