I can’t remember the first time I heard the phrase, “Listen to your body.” But if I had to guess, I’d say I was 22 years old at the time. Most likely I was in a sterile hospital room, sitting in a circle surrounded by other emaciated girls. All of us wearing the same dumbfounded expression. All of us wondering the same thing.
What does it even mean to listen to your body?
A fish doesn’t know she’s swimming in water because she’s never walked around on the dirt, right? Well, telling someone whose spent months, years, or even decades cutting themselves off from their own body’s signals to “listen to your body” is sort of like telling a fish to notice the water. It doesn’t even register at first.
A Culture of Disconnection
Eating disorders cause disconnection with our own bodies. Your body is the home your soul will reside in your entire life. Sadly we’re often trained to tune out the signals our bodies send us. “No pain no gain” is an expression I’m sure you’ve heard before. We’re told over and over to push through pain and focus on our goals. To never stop trying. Not to give up. No matter what. We are urged to ignore signals that our body is in pain or needs rest. Focused on doing, achieving, and succeeding, little emphasis is placed on teaching children how to feel their feelings, listen to their bodies, and follow their drives.
Diet Culture Reinforces Disconnection
There’s no doubt our society is obsessed with an unrealistic thin ideal. Diet culture bombards us with messages every single day. We’re sold the lie: if we diet and lose weight, we’ll be healthier. Happier. More worthy. Attractive. Loved. At the same time we live in a society that continually treats people differently according to their body shape, size, and color.
Most of us cope with this pressure by giving in. By going on a diet, working to control our bodies, and trying to lose weight. To fit into the unrealistic ideal.
Not only do diets fail 95-97% of the time, lead to weight gain, and often to eating disorders… but they also actively disconnect us from our bodies.
It is impossible to follow a diet and to listen to your body at the same time.
Weight Watchers, Noom, Paleo, you name it. ALL diets harm our ability to connect with our bodies. Diets teach us to eat according to a clock rather than according to signals our own majestic bodies send us. They teach us to measure our food according to points, scales, and invented serving sizes. Instead of listening to our own body cues. Diets teach us to ignore our hunger signs. To try to trick our bodies into not feeling hungry when they in fact are hungry.
Just look at ANY other living creature in this world. They are able to survive, grow, and thrive by listening to their own bodies and feeding themselves. You don’t see squirrels counting their acorns, or deer worrying about the calories in the plants they eat. That’s because they rely on their senses to find food and the signals their bodies send them about how much to eat. Even ancient humans survived by their instincts. Their drives. Cues. And Signals. They listened to their bodies.
Why Listening to Your Body is Important
Your body is brilliant and carries innate wisdom. If you can learn to quiet the noise all around you- the noise of anxiety, of diet culture, of your mom, and of the advertisers, of media… then you will be able to once again hear your inner wisdom. Yes… it is scary. It is hard. And it may sound impossible. But it is not.
Recovery is about reconnecting to your body and listening to her.
Listening is a Skill, and You’re Already Doing It
Would you be surprised if I told you that in many ways you’re already listening to your body? How do you decide when to go to the bathroom? You listen to your body. What about when to fall asleep? You listen to your body. When you get a cramp in your leg, you instinctively stretch your muscle. Reach for a blanket when you get the chills- again you’re listening!
Your body is not broken and you are not incapable. No matter how long you have been struggling with an eating disorder, you can reconnect to your body.
Why Learn to Listen to Your Body?
The main goal of your body is to grow and survive. Tuning in to these natural urges, sensations, and drives not only help us survive. But it helps us thrive. And feel good. When you begin to listen to your body, you can build back her trust. You can reconnect to the innate wisdom she holds inside.
According to set point weight theory, your body has a natural weight it is constantly attempts to get you back too. When your body is at this weight, you are able to fuel her without obsession, your body is healthy, and your weight remains stable. When you attempt to drive your body below her natural set point weight, several harmful things may happen. Severe restriction triggers some of us into anorexia nervosa, while it triggers others into a binge/purge cycle.
Listening to and responding to our body’s needs is the easiest way to find our set-point weight. Which, in turn, sets us free from food and weight obsessions.
Okay, so lets say you agree you want to give this “listen to your body” thing a try. If you’re anything like me, you are wondering how to even begin.
How to Start to Listen to Your Body
Tune in and Trust
The very first step towards learning to listen to your body is to start noticing. Pay attention to the sensations in your physical body. Starting with the top of your head, mentally scan your body, noticing any feelings and sensations. Is there any pain? Any tightness? Do body parts feel warm or cold?
Our bodies are constantly giving us information. Our five senses provide us with input, through our bodies, about our surroundings. Notice what you hear, see, smell, feel, and taste.
Also consider the idea of trust. Your body holds wisdom and knows innately what you need.
You just have to learn to listen to her. The more your respond to your body’s needs, the easier it will become to notice them.
Mindfulness practices are an excellent way to become connected to your body. The key to mindfulness is focusing in on this very moment.
Being mindful means you are deeply connected to the present.
There are many exercises that can help you develop the skill of mindfulness. Just like any other new skill you are learning, the more you practice it, the better you’ll become at it.
Yoga or some other form of movement
Practicing yoga is an excellent way to get more in tuned with your body. Embodiment, or really feeling into and experiencing sensations in our bodies, helps us to continue listen to and respond to our bodies needs. This four step yoga practice is just one example of the many practices that can help us become more connected internally.
Most people who struggle with eating disorders have had a tumultuous relationship with exercise and movement. Often we engage in exercise with the sole purpose of shrinking or changing our bodies.
When we learn to practice yoga or other forms of movement with the intent of connecting to our bodies, we have an entirely different experience.
For some people, yoga is the type of movement that connects them most to their bodies. For others, horse back riding, martial arts, or rollerblading may be the key. Think outside of the box, and consider trying something new. When I was deep in my eating disorder, the idea of trying a belly dancing class would have sent me into a panic. What a gift it was the first time I tried it in recovery and enjoyed a new way of connecting to the body part I had most hated in the past.
We are all unique humans and what worked for me may not be what works for you. The magic of reconnecting happens when we let go of movement and exercise as a form of contorting our body shape and size, and instead use it to connect with joy and pleasure.
It Takes Time
When you’ve spent months, years, or even decades disconnected from your body, it will take time to reconnect. Give yourself permission to take this process one moment at a time. Patience with yourself will only help the process. With persistence and consistency, you can reconnect with your body and tap into her wisdom.
Learning to listen to your body brings with it the freedom of true recovery.