Can’t Move Forward? Then Stop.
Recently I haven’t been feeling well. I’ve been really fatigued so I’ve been making an effort to listen to my body and not overdo things. I have been trying to take it easy, go to bed early, drink lots of fluids, and eat nourishing foods. In spite of my efforts, there came a day last month when by 2:00pm I felt as if I literally couldn’t do another thing, as if I had hit some kind of a wall. My to do list was a mile long, emails needed answering, I had another conference call on my schedule, and every cell in my body felt like all I wanted to do was shut my eyes. I couldn’t find the words to write the things that needed to be written, and they weren’t all that complicated.
I spent a few minutes feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, and then I decided to see what would happen if I listened to what body was telling me. I gave myself permission to close my eyes for a bit. I set my iPhone timer for 20 minutes so that I wouldn’t sleep through my call.
In order to calm my anxiety about the pull I was feeling between everything I had to get done and this feeling that I was so fatigued I couldn’t form a coherent thought, I focused on my breath. I noticed how the air felt moving in and out of my nose, the rise and fall of my breath filling my chest, lungs, belly. I gave in to the messages my body was sending me. I think I even fell asleep.
When my alarm went off I felt surprisingly better. I felt more able physically and mentally to accomplish the tasks on my to-do list. The emails I had been struggling to write seemed to flow easily now. I participated in my conference call, finished up my afternoon by addressing one task at a time, had dinner, fought the urge to check email one last time before bed, and went to sleep.
What was my takeaway here? That pausing, listening to my body, and taking a break for 20 minutes actually made me more productive. It took less time and mental energy to do the things I had to do, as opposed to if I had attempted to power through and force the issue.
Now I know I’m telling this story as if taking a 20-minute break wasn’t at all difficult for me, so I want to say, just so that there is no confusion, it was. I spent a lot of time judging myself and telling myself that there was entirely too much to do to take a break before I decided to take one. Which made me ask the question, if we know how important it is to pay attention to the messages our bodies are sending us, then why is it so hard for us to listen to them?
We live in a culture that supports powering through at all costs. We wear exhaustion like a badge of honor. And while wellness and self-care may be the latest buzz words, most of us aren’t very good at it and we aren’t very well supported when we practice it. Because of the messages society sends us about what we must endure, we have unrealistic expectations about what we humans can handle both physically and mentally. And because our culture sets the bar unrealistically high and each of us have different levels of tolerance, we’re set up to feel badly about ourselves when someone else appears to be handling something that feels like it’s too much for us.
So what can we do when we’re having a moment where we feel like we can’t do one more thing or if unrealistic expectations are being placed on us by ourselves or someone else? Overall there are two choices. We can insist on powering through, trying to force a square peg into a round hole. This will most likely result in us feeling physically exhausted. We may manifest physical symptoms such as ulcers, headaches, reflux, back pain, exhaustion, or irritability. Maybe we experience emotional disturbances such as anxiety, sadness, low feelings of self-worth, anger or frustration. We might feel unseen, unheard, or we might feel a lack of control over our situation.
Or we can pause. Maybe sit silently for a moment focusing on our breath and reflecting on what things in life make us feel strong in our bodies. If sitting still feels like too much right now, maybe coordinate some movement with the breath. Maybe go for a walk while focusing on breathing or inhale as you rise your arms above your head and exhale as you lower them down. This will help to discharge some of the energy overloading your nervous system. Then maybe begin to envision you can do now that will help you feel even 1% better.
I recently read a book called The Kaizen Way by Robert Ph.D., which explores the idea that the smallest changes can lead to the biggest results. So you don’t have to make a huge change all at once. For most of us, that idea is highly unrealistic and will only add to the feelings of strain or pressure. Start small to give yourself a sense of control. The language we use and the things we tell ourselves matter so maybe we start by telling ourselves a different story about our situation than we have been. Maybe set aside just a few minutes a day to sit in silence or to go for a walk in order to replenish your energy reserves.
The possibilities are really endless but we can’t see them when we are feeling overwhelmed and dancing as fast as we can. We have the answers within ourselves, we just need to reconnect with them. And just like everyone’s tipping point is different, everyone’s technique for listening could be different too.
If any of this article resonated with you, I’d love to hear more about it. As always, thank you for reading, take care of you, and let me know how things are going!