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5 Ways the Phrase 'Listen to Your Body' Can Be Complicated With Chronic Illness

The wellness community is oversaturated with the catchphrase “listen to your body.” By tuning into feelings, emotions and physical sensations in the body, you cultivate the practice of mind-body awareness. For instance, if you perceive symptoms of tiredness, you honor your body’s needs with a nap as soon as you can. Listening to the body is integral to self-care, and fostering a mind-body connection is never a bad thing. Where this idea falls short is its applicability. It only works in certain circumstances, and for certain types of people with certain types of problems. It’s not so simple in the case of chronic illness, where needs are not discrete, but longstanding and pervasive. To put it simply, if we were to truly “listen to our bodies,” we may never leave our bedrooms. Being human, we also carry hearts, dreams and desires that need to be honored as well. This is why “listening to your body” is complicated in chronic illness, and can fall short in its understanding of our lives, especially in the following scenarios.

1. When you can’t listen to your body.

When you live with chronic illness, there are so many instances when it’s not possible to “listen to your body.” The fallout of slowing down or stopping – financially and emotionally – are huge motivators to keep pushing. For many, pushing is a necessity, and mode of survival. An overwhelmed single mother who is barely able to stay afloat financially, doesn’t have the luxury of taking time off if her multiple sclerosis is bad. To do so could mean not making this month’s rent, or risking food security. In this way, “listening to your body” has become a mantra that is handed out indiscriminately, often accompanied by the sounds of a tranquil pan flute. It ignores how our society is not built to accommodate those living with chronic illness. In theory it is beautiful, but in practice, resting is a privilege that is not accessible to everyone.

2. When you are forced to listen to your body.

“Listening to your body” is not a choice, but often the only option for many with chronic illness. Instead of feeling like a nurturing act of self-care (insert picture of woman in bubble bath, wearing a face mask, surrounded by candles), “listening to your body” becomes just another shape your survival takes on. For some it may look like selling your home to pay medical expenses, or for many others, going on disability (which isn’t a smooth or easy process). “Listening to your body” can be an emotionally painful and stressful experience to live through, and often a last resort. It’s moving through grief with enough grace to not drown in it. It’s redefining your life, beliefs and sense of purpose while facing many unknowns on the horizon.

3. When no one else listens to your body.

On one hand, we’re given the message to “listen to your body.” On the other hand, those experiences are often invalidated by our medical systems. We’re deemed inaccurate witnesses to the very body we are listening and deeply connected to. This is especially true for woman, because of the gender bias that exists in the field of medicine. It is most evident in under-researched diseases that disproportionately affect women – like autoimmune disease, myalgic encephalomyelitis and many chronic pain conditions. This results in a “knowledge gap” – a term coined for the lack of information doctors have in recognizing and treating these conditions. All too often doctors dismiss our accounts as a result – a scenario called the “trust gap.” The “knowledge gap” and “trust gap” are what Maya Dusenbery, in her book “Doing Harm,” explains is at the heart of why woman are not being listened to. Having symptoms dismissed and psychologized as depression, anxiety or the all-time favorite, stress, happens all the time. The experience of listening to our bodies when no one else is can be traumatic and affect our health care in disproportionately negative ways.

4. When you are judged for listening to your body. 

Our society operates on the idea that with enough effort and determination, anyone can regulate the outcomes of their life. This belief is seductive because it provides a false sense of control, and works so long as things go as planned. In chronic illness, things don’t go as planned. You learn that even with rest, predictability and control are never a guarantee. The judgment that all health problems can be surmounted, if only, if only, you work even harder, still persists regardless.

Popularized external messages that glorify pushing the body include “if things don’t go your way, work even harder until they do.” “Listening to your body”  is often an afterthought, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of achieving one’s #goals. Deaths from overworking denounce this paradigm completely however. In China alone, half a million people die from overwork each year. In Japan, the word karosi translates to “death from overwork,” and was declared a risk for one-fifth of the country’s workforce. Despite these dangers of overworking, the chronic illness community continues to face an onslaught of shame, blame and judgment when we do listen to our bodies and stop. Resting becomes an act of resistance, as we learn to thrive amidst the external and internal messages that associate self-worth with productivity.

5. When you choose not to listen to your body.

“Listen to your heart” and “follow your dreams” are cliches, but are also integral to one’s wellbeing. What you love to do makes life meaningful, and brings a sense of fulfillment and purpose. Being sick directly impacts your ability to participate in life the way you wish you could. There is often a balance you have to strike between “listening to your body” and “listening to your heart.” To always rest and turn down opportunities will leave you feeling isolated and affect your mental health. To constantly be pushing to do the things you love will result in your health deteriorating. It’s a fine balance that anyone with a chronic illness knows only too well: the bargain of choosing things that bring you joy, at the expense of your health. It is never an easy choice, but is a necessary one.

painting of a woman's body by the author
“Symphony of Symptoms” by Christina Baltais

These are the ways that complicate my relationship to the phrase “listen to your body.” When you take it in the context of our world, while navigating through it with a chronically ill body, it is not as simple as it sounds. Nevertheless, I feel tired, and will go honor that as best I can.

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