Listen to Your Body

Prevention Magazine . April, 2004
Those aches and pains are telling you something

Several years ago I developed an angry rash on my thighs and arms. After treating it as dry skin for several months, I finally visited a dermatologist. She wasted no time taking a biopsy and found that killer T cells—James Bond-like operatives of the immune system—had migrated en masse to my skin. The ensuing red bumps were like forts filled with an army of killer cells on perpetual alert for invaders.

I was told that if it didn’t clear up, I might need treatment with methotrexate, a serious drug used for cancer chemotherapy. “Thanks, I’ll try something a little more low-tech first,” I replied. As I headed out the door, I felt a little quiver of fear in my belly.

The rash was a wake-up call. Something was deeply wrong with me that needed to be put right. Whatever medical treatment might have been necessary, I knew I needed to focus first on the cause of the killer-cell invasion so that the cure could be effective.

It’s like dealing with a headache. You can take an aspirin, and it might go away. But if the cause of your headache is chronic muscle tension due to the stress of your job or emotional upset, you must change your life or your attitude in order for your body to come back into balance. Otherwise, the headache will recur as a reminder that something in your life needs healing.

My specialty as a scientist and psychologist is the mind-body connection, so I began thinking about the rash as a message from my body. Our inner wisdom talks to us all the time—through dreams, body sensations, hunches, emotional “hits,” and sometimes physical symptoms.

My years in clinical practice, as well as a large body of research literature in psychosomatic medicine, had convinced me that these can all be channels for what we call intuition—knowledge or insight gained without rational thought.

I’m certainly not saying that all physical symptoms, dreams, or hunches are matters of intuition. A headache might simply be caused by fatigue, the cleaning product you used on your carpet, or a reaction to fluorescent lights. But sometimes your body has a more important story to tell. If a physical symptom persists or a dream is particularly vivid, your intuition may be trying to break through.

For example, I once had a dream about a vial of explosive nitroglycerin in the left breast pocket of a blazer. When I woke up, I could still feel a strong sensation of heat in my breast. It persisted for several days.

Concerned about cancer, I consulted a surgeon. He found nothing. But at a mammography appointment, the radiologist pointed out calcifications in my left breast. I could choose a biopsy or wait and see if they changed. Recalling the troubling dream and the lingering sense of heat, I chose a biopsy. Turns out it revealed precancerous cells. By following the body intuition from my dream, I averted potential disaster. Forewarned by experience, I began thinking about the two major features of the rash. First, it was the result of an overzealous immune system. Second, it was on the skin. The skin and the immune system are both boundaries. They separate us from the outside world, defending against invasion. Based on these clues, I thought about my emotional-behavioral boundaries. Could my body have been telling me that those boundaries were weak by mounting such a strong defense?

Over the years I’d been an inveterate giver with family, coworkers, and friends. Giving can be a heartfelt expression of compassion, but it can also be a way of losing yourself if you always put other people’s needs first. The truth is, I was a doormat, afraid that people wouldn’t like me if I failed to satisfy their every desire. My tendency was to give and give, getting ever more resentful about the outflow of time, energy, and financial resources. I was like a fairy godmother with attitude. A friend called me a human buffet—for inviting everyone to come in and have a bite. The rash was an intuitive neon sign that said: Close the buffet line or risk serious physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual illness.

For me, closing the buffet line meant making tough changes: I ended two very draining relationships, learned to be honest when I felt taken advantage of, and began saying no to tasks that stretched me beyond my limits. For example, every week brings two or three requests to endorse book manuscripts. I used to feel guilty if I didn’t respond. Now I say no to most, freeing up precious time for the people and projects I love.

The rash led to an expanded awareness of how I was choosing to live. Every once in a while, a minor eruption still crops up. When it does, I look at my boundaries and inquire honestly about where I might have sold out. As soon as I deal with those issues, the rash begins to subside. Of course, the mind-body connection is not always that simple. Sometimes you change your life and still need medical help. But when your body gives you a message, it’s always an opportunity to respond from the center—from your truest and best self.

How to Sharpen Your Intuition

Here are simple ways to get in touch with your inner thoughts:

  1. Keep track of your dreams, hunches, and physical symptoms in a special intuition journal.
  2. Let’s say that you’re getting headaches. Record when the headaches come, what’s happening in your life, and how you feel.
  3. Ask your headache (or other physical symptom, emotion, or dream) if it has a story to tell you. Write the story for 10 minutes without lifting your pen.
  4. You may or may not have an insight that immediately hits home, but you’ve given your inner wisdom the message that you’re listening. This is the first step in honing intuition.
  5. Formulate an action plan based on your insights. Taking one small step toward change opens the door to transformation. And in the case of a physical symptom, be sure to seek appropriate medical advice, especially if it doesn’t go away.

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