How to Listen to Your Body When You're Not on Speaking Terms

When your body serves up RA, it's understandable that you return the favor with silence. Here's how to get the convo started.

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

I live with an absolute jerk. She bosses me around, every day telling me what I can and cannot do. If I don’t do what she says, she hurts me in ingenious ways that are invisible to the naked eye, leaving no proof of what she has done. Most days, I can hide it, but every now and again, it’s so bad I have to rest and heal for several days. If you’ve guessed that this “rhymes-with-witch” is my body, you win! Thanks to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), my body and I have been in a constant fight since childhood. Quite frankly, since so many of the messages my body sends me relate to pain and limitations, my only defense mechanism has been to tune them out.

Listen to your body, the doctors say. Learn to pace yourself, says every medical professional I have ever met. For decades, I have listened to this advice as much—or as little—as I have to my body. Most of the time, my body and I have had what might mildly be called a “difference of opinion” about the tasks of the day. She wants to nap or watch undemanding YouTube videos, while I have responsibilities, rent to pay, and a desire to live my life as fully as possible.

So I’ve ignored her. And yes, she has a definite gender and fully formed personality (mostly cranky), although I have not given her a name. It would give her too much power. Ignoring the constant grumbling has required years of fine-tuning filters to the point that they block out most sound, except the most desperate screaming.

She was mean to me, so I was mean to her.

It wasn’t until about a decade ago that I realized this approach was counterproductive. When my body had to, for instance, escalate from a polite request for some rest to begging for relief before I paid attention, I ended up spending a lot of time overdoing it and not at all enjoying the resulting flares. Perhaps there was something to this idea of “pacing” after all? But an essential piece of information was missing from that ubiquitous medical advice—tips on how to actually do it, while still living your life.

I spent several years dismantling my previous coping tools and building new ones, finally getting to a point where my body and I are no longer locked in a fight. Instead we have found a way to collaborate like partners. Much to my surprise, my life is better for it.

If you’re constantly fighting your body, as well, you might want to try what I did.

Counseling. There is no shame in getting a bit of therapy when you’re stuck, and locking horns with part of yourself is no exception. Counseling can be a huge help to identify your points of grief and rage about the life changes enforced by RA, as well as learning new coping tools. Although actual couples counseling may not be necessary, it can inform and inspire as you work through where you are now and where you want to be. Let your body have a voice in the process—what does it need from you?

Make friends with your body. After a lifetime of seeing my body as nothing but a source of betrayal and pain, I had a light-bulb moment so big it rivaled the sun. My body is not my enemy at all—my body is my friend. Every day, she carries me through hours of very difficult tasks, often with very little reward. Most of the time, I don’t help her at all, instead I demand that she do what I want, when I want. That’s no way to treat anyone. I once had a very strange, but profound, moment of opening up and listening to what my body was telling me. What I heard was a voice saying she was trying her best and needed my help.

Compromise. Having a conversation with your body can be the start of building compromises—when you know what each partner needs, you can negotiate a middle ground. In the beginning, I found it helpful to actually speak the words out loud, with me voicing both what I needed and what my body was clearly saying. These days, the dialogue is more internal, but the mutual respect still forms the foundation. My body helps me do tasks like writing this column. In return, I take a nap in the afternoon and have at least one session a day of reading or watching YouTube videos.

Finding my way to seeing my body as a partner who needs my help has had an incredible effect on my physical and mental health. I’m better at recognizing when I need to rest, to stop or slow down, and check in with my body before committing to anything new. As a result, I have less instances of massive flares taking me out for days or weeks at a time, and less pain in my every day. As well, recognizing that I didn’t have to be trapped in a mean-on-mean battle with my body, but could see myself as a whole—mind, soul and body—has been the most important factor in coming to a point where I love all of me.

And all it took was seeing my body as a partner in my life.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.