I’m a strong believer that our bodies have wisdom; they know what they need to be as healthy as they possibly could be in this moment, and they will do their best to communicate that to us. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at listening. With our huge brains, we’ve learned to pay more attention to our thoughts and tune out the rest of the messages from our body that would provide a fuller, more holistic picture of what those of us living with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) may need.
Back when we had full health, relying on our thoughts alone seemed to be adaptive, as it could lead to higher productivity and success (at least, until ignoring the bodies messages brings ill health). But when a chronic illness has already hit, allowing our brains to be in control without listening to the messages of our body is far more harmful. Our thinking, that’s been trained to try to predict outcomes and find answers, can’t help but turn to worry and striving. And with a chronic illness like ME/CFS, worry and striving are the furthest thing from being adaptive. Let’s take a look how to listen to what you’re body really needs, especially when we’re wrestling with ME/CFS symptoms.
How to Listen to What Your Body Really Needs When You’re Living with ME/CFS
Mindfulness is a practice that teaches us to pay more attention to this moment. The goal isn’t to ignore thoughts. It’s about becoming more aware of all factors so that you make appropriate choices about actions, rather than run on an old autopilot setting that is no longer appropriate to present circumstances. For example, if you’re aware that something is becoming more of an effort, but you also have an urge to push through to get it done, you can make a choice: Do I push through? Or, do I recognize that my energy must be flagging if the effort needed to continue is increasing? In order to be able to find these choice points, we have to practice becoming more aware. Doing a regular check can be helpful with that:
- Where am I in space?
- What am I making contact with?
- What can I feel on the outside?
- What do I feel on the inside?
- What can I hear? Taste? Smell?
- What thoughts are running through my mind?
- What emotions am I feeling?
Whether it’s silently contemplating nature or practicing meditation, if you take regular time to create space and sit in silence, your body will find a way of telling you what it needs. When I was younger, I used to find a huge old tree, sit at its roots, ask it a question, then silently and patiently wait for an answer. By handing the problem over to the tree, I was taking my active thinking brain out of the picture and letting my holistic natural wisdom have a voice. Nowadays, I use a meditation practice where I visualize myself filling with light, peace and clarity. If I have a specific question, I imagine it written on a piece of paper, and I drop it into my light-filled body through my crown. It sparkles as the light dissolves it, and I wait patiently for my clarity to provide the answer. Answers don’t always come straight away, but when you’re willing to wait, they always show up as a kind of deep knowing.
3. Asking yourself the right questions
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Often the wisdom of our body is so desperate to be heard that it can be immediately accessed just by asking yourself the right question. I like to regularly ask myself, “What is the kindest thing I could do for myself in this moment?” You could also journal about questions like, “How well did I take care of myself today? How could I have done better?” Try not to think too hard about the answers. Just write what flows through your mind.
4. Conflicting needs
Because we’re not used to listening to our wholeness, we can deny some of our needs until they shout so loudly that they can’t be ignored, even if that means doing something harmful. How many times in the last week have you done something that you know wasn’t really the best thing for you? I can count half a dozen small incidences just in the last two days!
Whenever we find our self with a strong urge to do something that we know isn’t contributing to ME/CFS recovery or well-being, like eating junk instead of a healthy meal, it helps to compassionately acknowledge that there is a need behind it and try to work out where that comes from. Maybe it’s a need for comfort? A sense of wanting to let go of taking responsibility? Why is it shouting louder than your need to be healthy right now? What’s really behind that need?
If we can catch this in the moment (with mindfulness), we then have a choice: give into the need, or do what’s most healthy for our body and plan to get the other need met in another (less destructive) way.
We’re not always able to catch things in the moment though, so when we are regularly doing things that get in the way of our being able to listen to our healing wisdom, we need to explore and plan. This weekend I ate a junk meal. I really just couldn’t be bothered to think about what I could prepare, even though I had lots of fresh and healthy ingredients. On reflection, I realized that my conflicting need was to have it easy. I had a sense of pressure from a work issue, and I just wanted to feel free somehow. I can have compassion for that need now. I can see how understandable it was that I was fed up with taking responsibility. And I can also see how it could have been avoided by not allowing the work issue to weigh me down so hard. There are ways I can work on my perceptions that will help me not take on so much responsibility around my work, and that needs to be part of my plan.
5. Letting go of unrealistic desires
Often it is the state of wanting, that gets in the way of being able to listen to what we need. When we still desperately want the life that we had before ME/CFS struck, it’s very hard to listen to our body when it tells us to slow down and take lots of rest. In order to really be open to listening to what our body needs, we have to be will to let go of unrealistic desires, grieve our losses, and reach an acceptance of exactly how things are in the moment. With that acceptance we can listen, and when we listen our bodies will guide us toward what we need in order to heal.
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on June 28, 2019 and was updated on September 17, 2020.
Julie Holliday is a holistic life coach and writer committed to helping people take back control from energy-limiting chronic illness to live a more relaxed, balanced, and fulfilling life. Julie loves spending time in nature, growing her own vegetables and spends as much of her day as possible in a comfortable pair of yoga pants. Writing as the ME/CFS Self-Help Guru, Julie shares tips on her weekly blog. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.