The True Meaning of Listening to Your Body
“Listen to your body” is a buzz-phrase you’ve probably heard many times before, but do you really know what it means? Have you ever stopped to think about why you should be listening to your body? And how does one actually go about fulfilling this task? We spoke with psychologist and trauma expert Trinidad Zuluaga with all of these questions in mind, and her answers did not disappoint. When it comes to your health, knowledge is power, so read on for this critical dose of information.
Our talk began with a word that rarely shows up in everyday conversations: “proprioception.” Trinidad defined this term “as the sense of self-movement or the capacity to be in contact with your body” and added that it’s “the first thing you lose when you’re amid a traumatic experience.” Highlighting this fact was vital to understand that the process of healing from trauma necessarily involves regaining that lost contact with your physical self.
“Trauma” was another, much more common word that also had to be defined from the beginning. “Socially, trauma is defined as any life experience that has impacted your free will. In other words, anything that has limited your capacity to be your actual self. As a psychologist and human being, I believe all human beings have suffered some type of trauma. Of course, impact and depth vary, but the only way to not be affected by life experiences is to be dead.”
Trinidad used a common example to further explain the relationship between trauma and mind-body detachment. “Take people who lead very agitated lifestyles. They forget to go to the bathroom, or they forget to eat, and this is essentially an absolute disconnection with their bodies, which is grave because although many believe the mind to be the most important thing, it’s not. We’re still human beings.”
This detachment between mind and body can frequently lead to “somatization,” described by Trinidad as “the process by which your life experiences manifest as a disease. It’s common in people who don’t listen to their bodies, and in essence, it's the body calling out for attention, asking you to become aware of what’s going on.”
To further explain this idea, Zuluaga returned to the example of a person with copious amounts of stress in their lives. “When someone is constantly stressed, their central nervous system is overwhelmed,” she mentioned. “Frequently, the first thing that starts failing is their digestive system, that’s because all of their energy is focused on an action plan for survival and concentrated in their extremities which are vital to enduring danger,” she added.
This distribution of energy is not wrong per se, in fact, it’s just the way your body works to keep you alive. The real problem arises when you can’t go back to baseline and instead embrace these levels of stress as a permanent lifestyle. “This is completely unsustainable over time. High levels of stress impair numerous essential body functions, like your immunological system, for example. When that system is in a vulnerable, depressed state, of course, the possibility of entrance for a disease is much higher,” Trinidad explained.
Having discussed the what and the why, we moved on to focus on the how. Where to begin was the question and mindfulness and movement where the straight answers.
“Mindfulness is a beautiful way to sharpen your capacity to understand and listen to your body, it allows you to truly acquire proprioception. An easy way to begin is by becoming aware of your extremities, and slowly working your way towards the center. It’s normal to shy away from connecting with the center of your body since it’s where your vital organs are, so it’s ideal to start from outside.” Trinidad believes practicing this sort of awareness for a few minutes a day will make all the difference.
When speaking of movement, Zuluaga shared a beautiful story. “There’s a study on trauma that compared humans beings to wild animals. They asked, why do humans hold on to trauma, and animals just continue with their lives as if nothing happened, even after an attack? The key observation was movement. After experiencing trauma, the first thing animals do is tremble, shake it off, and continue moving. These observations led to the realization that when there’s a lot of stress, you’re essentially generating energy, which is why you feel tense and the need to move around and run, for example. When you don’t allow that energy to come full circle and leave your body through movement, the problems begin. In short, moving is key to release and complete cycles.”
If you’re thinking about how you should go about moving, Trinidad believes Yoga is the ideal place to start. “Many studies show yoga is a wonderful tool to heal trauma. It’s an exercise in which you come into contact with every muscle of your body, and it incorporates introspection and self-compassion, which is why I highly recommend it to all my patients.”
We hope the next time you hear or read the phrase "listen to your body" you'll remember; it is actually speaking to you.
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