Listening for the Whisper

I was going to write a blog focusing on how I raise or lower my expectations for myself depending on the status of my pain, energy, and mindset but last week my business coach, Grace at GraceQuantock.com, introduced me to a new concept that I wanted to share with you.

Have any of you noticed that when you feel good you go all out and try to do all the things you’ve been wanting/needing to do? Then, you end up crashing because you’ve overestimated your physical resources? This is very common in our society where action and productivity are highly prized but overreaching can be very detrimental to your health because it can set you back or even do damage to your system.

I’ve seen this again and again with people who start an exercise plan. They set their expectations too high (“I’m going to run three miles non-step even though I haven’t run in three years!”) then quickly experience burnout or injure themselves. Instead of helping them to get healthier, they end up stopping exercise all together!

I’m certainly guilty of falling into this trap.  Last summer I did this exact thing. I was feeling weak and out of shape because I hadn’t worked out at all over the last year. I hadn’t done anything except an occasional walk or yoga session in my front room in quite a while. In the past my most consistent form of exercise was running but I had to stop running because of pain in my knees.

I got curious about CrossFit when a friend recommended a local CrossFit gym. I started Googling CrossFit and watching YouTube videos of the CrossFit competitions. What I saw was so exciting! The videos were very inspirational and I wanted to be just like the people I saw on my computer screen. They looked strong and healthy and happy. Everything our society tells me I should be.

I wasn’t entirely sure that I would be able to do the workouts because of my health concerns (fatigue, joint pain and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis) but the coach at the gym reassured me that they would help me modify the workouts to meet my needs. I ignored the little voice that was urging caution and my slow downward slide began.

Our bodies speak to us in whispers, and if we don’t listen, they start to yell.

Things were great for the first month or so. I loved the camaraderie and the sense of confidence I felt as I worked to build my strength but my health quickly started deteriorating. On the Fourth of July the gym offered a Hero Workout of the Day (WOD) to honor fallen soldiers. The Hero WOD is a very difficult workout that is designed to remind you of the intense commitment a soldier has to completing his mission in spite of any hardships. I was proud when I was able to finish the workout with the other gym members but I was exhausted and I quickly found out that I had pushed myself too far. I spent the rest of the weekend at home because, with that one workout, I had depleted all my energy.

I gave myself a week to recover from the Hero WOD then I returned to the gym for my self-prescribed three times a week workouts. My quality of sleep started to suffer and I started waking up 6-7 times a night. I didn’t recognize the connection between my exhaustion, my body’s inability to sleep, and my activity level but my body was whispering to me and I wasn’t listening.

*Side note: If you notice that interrupted sleep is correlating with increased physical activity it is a great idea to lower the intensity of your physical activity and do some investigation into why you aren’t sleeping well. After having some tests done I found out that I was clinically deficient in two micronutrients and borderline deficient in 9 other micronutrients. By interrupting my sleep my body was trying to tell me that it was STRESSED OUT and running on empty. I didn’t listen to my body and instead decided that if I couldn’t sleep I might as well go workout. Bad idea…

The gym hosted another Hero WOD on Labor Day and I was excited to participate again. I ignored the fatigue, interrupted sleep, and weakness, and soldiered on. I completed the WOD at what I thought was my own pace but it was still too much for my body. I spent the rest of the four day weekend on my couch, sick and completely done in.

I can’t believe I ignored the signals my body was sending for so long, but I did. I wanted to be healthy and strong so badly that I ignored all the signs that I was actually damaging my body instead of helping it. I wanted to be fit and confident and healthy but I was only making myself weaker. I finally knew it was time to stop when I didn’t have the strength to finish an average WOD and I had to spend three hours recovering from the part of the workout I did complete. I’ve spent the last year trying to recover.

When you feel good it can be so tempting to overextend. Then when you feel bad the temptation is to hibernate (yes, I’m definitely guilty of this) and the only exercise you get is pushing the volume button on the TV remote. Neither of these polar opposites is healthy. Even if you’re injured, have high levels of chronic pain, or are constantly fatigued, a small amount of gentle movement can be therapeutic. Studies, and personal experience, have shown that gentle movement can reduce stress, depression, anxiety, muscle tension, and pain and it can increase relaxation, energy, and mood.

Here is where Compassionate Awareness comes in. Compassionate Awareness helps you to become aware of your body’s needs and encourages you to respond with compassion.

Start with becoming mindful of the ebbs and flows of your pain, energy, and mindset. Then notice what you are capable of doing when you are in the worst pain, have a high amount of fatigue, and/or are feeling depressed. Once you are mindful and have noted what you are capable of, set a goal for physical activity which is gentle enough that you will be able to complete it every day, even on your worst days. This could be five minutes of yoga, 20 minutes of walking, or just getting out of bed and walking to the kitchen (depending on where you are on your journey). The key is that you won’t do more when you feel good but you also won’t do less than you’re realistically capable of.

Setting a low limit for yourself can be pretty frustrating when you’re used to going full speed when you feel good but it has a couple of advantages. First, it means that you won’t damage or overdo your system by going full out. Second, it means that you will have a reserve of fuel in your tank to draw on when you have a bad day.

Give yourself a decent amount of time, two weeks or a month, then reassess where your levels are. If you can increase your activity level and you can complete the activity even on your worst days then you’re ready to increase your activity level. But, if you know you’re still struggling and that you couldn’t do more on your bad days, be gentle with yourself, keep your health as your top priority, honor your body’s needs, and keep your activity level where it is.

Your body wants to heal if you give it the opportunity and it will speak to you if you will just listen.

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