“If you listen when your body whispers, you won’t have to hear it scream.” ~author unknown
From a medical perspective, when our body experiences pain, it sends a signal to our brain that there is an issue. If ignored long enough, certain chemicals go through our body to help get our attention, or the pain gets severe enough that it immobilizes us and we do something about it. But, what about when the pain has no medical origin? The pain still causes the same process to occur, sending signals to our brain that there is an issue we need to address. Sending signals that there is an internal crisis that needs an immediate cure. The problem is, addressing emotional pain from a medical perspective only causes more problems. People often get somatic pain disorders, which begins a constant focus on pain and symptoms that leads to severe emotional issues and often worsens the pain.
Emotional pain also causes signals to the brain to help us know when something is wrong. However, they seem to be easier for people to ignore, to distract themselves from. The problem is, our bodies cannot differentiate between emotional and physical pain. All our body knows is that something is attacking it and the keeper of the soul isn’t paying attention. So, it gets louder and louder. It begs us to listen to it through brain fog, insomnia, emotional meltdowns, dissociation, and eventually a paralyzing pain that even master distractors such as myself cannot ignore.
I know this because I have spent many days in the emergency room, sure that I was dying, sure that there was a problem that needed medical attention. Today was another one of those days. Anxiously waiting for a doctor to come back and tell me that there is nothing remarkable on the test results and then handing me a handful of prescriptions. And don’t forget the stomach medicine they have to give me because of what all the other medicine does to my poor gut. And then comes the embarrassment, the guilt, the shame for what I have done to my body and our finances.
I have been ignoring my emotions and body for so long that I do not even know when they are asking for my attention. Until they scream at me. And I abhor screaming of any kind. I have always been able to listen to anything people think or feel, as long as they do not yell at me or attack me. But, I have not offered my body and my emotion the same respect, the same attention. So it screams at me and attacks me.
I teach people to ask themselves to recognize what they think and feel, what they notice in their body, and how to respond to emotional cues healthily. I also educate people that emotions are not consciously controlled. Emotions are a part of our limbic system, part of our primitive brain that likely developed to protect us from threat and help us remember what to stay away from in the future. This is the same part of the brain that tells us to run away or stay and fight. There is no reason or logic in the emotional brain, nor is there language. No reason, no logic, no language, and controlled by our unconscious. Sound like a disaster waiting to happen?
Emotions are also closely tied to past memories. If your past or early childhood has trauma in it like mine, then your emotional responses are likely strong, and responses to similar stimuli trigger a sense of danger in your brain. Even long after the danger is gone, your emotional brain still senses danger where there is none. You eventually learn to just ignore the cues.
You may be asking yourself what all this has to do with body pain. Well, emotions are the whisper. Body pain is the scream. If you do not listen and respond to emotional cues, your body will scream at you. And, if you divert your attention away from your emotions by being an over-achiever like me, then your body experiences both an emotional threat and a physical threat. We can only run on an empty tank for so long before the vessel breaks down and needs repair. But it isn’t as easy as stopping for fuel. It is more like when you run your car out of oil, and it needs an entirely new engine.
Dealing with emotions and stress are like regular oil changes. Out with the old, in with the new, filter out the crud, and top off the tank. Living in chronic stress, a busy mind, and ignoring emotions is when the oil light comes on.. it is too late, and the damage is already done. You have to start over with a fresh motor and try to remember the regular oil changes.
Type A over-achievers get so busy they forget to change the oil until it is too late. For people, changing the oil means self-care. Self-care is different for everyone. For me, it is making sure I sleep, going to therapy when I get in my own way, staying away from toxic people and things, meditating, not taking on other people’s stuff, making sure I have time for fun and being the mom, nana, and wife I want to be. It means good sleep hygiene, lots of long runs, healthy food, and paying attention to that voice in my head that says I am never good enough. Reaching out to the few people who actually know me and letting them in to replace my motor. Being vulnerable, being raw and open, and having the courage to know that vulnerability is a sign of true strength, not weakness.
Everyone has to figure out their own self-care, and find different ways of fitting it in their life. Above all else, listen to the whispers.