How Shingles Taught me to Listen to my Body
Living a healthy lifestyle has been my number one priority over many years.
I include fruits and vegetables in my daily diet and limit processed foods. I exercise almost daily and try to get at least seven hours of sleep. I drink plenty of water and take the necessary vitamins and supplements.
I don’t smoke and don’t do any drugs. However, I do enjoy an occasional glass of wine, dark chocolate, and ice cream.
Despite my focus on healthy living, I used to frequently experience nagging physical symptoms of stress.
I didn’t sleep well and would wake up tired in the morning.
I had unexplained headaches and found it challenging to focus.
I often felt exhausted, and my energy level was low.
Instead of listening to my body, I used to ignore all these signals.
As an avid runner and triathlete, I often lived by a “mind over matter” principle. I used my mind to override the signals my body was sending me. While this approach used to work for me when I trained for races, it has turned out to be unsustainable.
The longer you ignore small signals your body sends you, the bigger they grow, often manifesting as physical illnesses. Sometimes, it can just be a cold; other times, it can result in a severe physical breakdown.
What you need to know about shingles
A few days before last Thanksgiving, I felt a bit under the weather. My skin got very sensitive, and it felt like I had pulled a muscle in my back. As I tried playing golf for the first time a couple of days before that, I blamed this unexplained muscle pain on golf.
The following day I noticed several stripes of painful red marks that appeared on my back. In a couple of days, similar blisters showed up on my stomach. As I felt a shooting pain across my body and could not sleep, I decided to see a doctor.
When I googled my symptoms, it looked like I had shingles. However, as shingles are most common in people over 50, I doubted my self-diagnosis.
Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person had chickenpox in childhood, the virus stays inactive in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles.
While shingles isn’t a life-threatening condition, it can be excruciating. The most common complication is postherpetic neuralgia, which causes shingles pain for a long time after the blisters have cleared.
The doctor confirmed that my rash looked like shingles. While it was surprising to see it in someone young without any other health issues, it wasn’t that uncommon.
Many researchers believe that stress could be a trigger for shingles among younger people. As I dealt with some personal issues, a lost tooth, dental surgery, and some other medical treatment, stress got accumulated and got out of control. Interestingly, I did not recognize the intensity of stress till it manifested as shingles.
The doctor prescribed an antiviral medication and told me to take pain relievers to manage pain. A week after I started taking the pills, my rash blisters got better. However, the stabbing pain caused by the nerves affected by the virus lingered for over a month.
Unnoticed stress in our lives
Several studies have shown that many health problems are related to stress, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, GI issues, and depression.
When you get sick, you probably think that it’s the result of bacteria or viruses. Many people don’t realize that stress weakens their immune systems, making them more susceptible to germs.
Stress is a part of life, and everybody experiences some degree of stress. It can be caused by any situation or thought that makes a person feel anxiety, frustration, or anger.
Stress may be caused by a one-time or short-term occurrence event. It may become chronic if it repeatedly happens over a long time. Some people may cope with stress more effectively and recover from stressful events more quickly than others.
Stress can manifest itself on physical, emotional, or behavioral levels. Some common physical symptoms include headaches, low energy, upset stomach, tense muscles, insomnia, and frequent colds. A person can feel anxious, angry, and overwhelmed. Other symptoms include a change in appetite, low motivation, increased procrastination, troubles with focusing, and social withdrawal.
It’s common for people not to realize that they are stressed out. You might be so used to being stressed that you don’t notice that something feels wrong. It might have become part of your daily life.
What it means to listen to your body
Listening to your body is an ability to notice and understand the messages your body sends you. Several examples of these messages include hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, pleasure, need to use a bathroom, and various emotions.
Many people tend to ignore or suppress these signals by allowing their minds to overwrite them.
I used to view fatigue, headaches, body aches, digestion issues, and mood swings as a normal part of life. When something in my body felt off, I’d just take several painkillers and carry on with my life.
However, these symptoms are the body’s indication that something needs to be changed or adjusted. Your body might be telling you that you need to slow down, rest and recover. If you continue ignoring subtle signals, you’ll get louder messages in the form of more severe health issues.
How to understand what your body needs
Sometimes body signals can be challenging to comprehend. The best way to start learning them is by creating awareness of your body, including physical sensations and emotions. Start noticing how you feel physically and emotionally after eating certain foods, being involved in certain activities, and spending time with certain people.
Do a hunger check to understand whether you are hungry or feel an emotional urge for food. If you are physically hungry, make sure to get nutrient-rich foods before your hunger gets too intense. Never starve yourself because you want to lose weight.
Become more aware of how you feel before eating certain foods and how you feel after.
Listen to your body’s feeling of satiety, and stop eating before you get too full. If you had food less than a couple of hours ago, your desire for food is most likely is driven by your emotions.
Emotional eating is a way of coping with negative emotions by reaching out for comfort foods, generally high in fat, salt, and sugars.
While these foods can give you some comfort for a short period, this relief is temporary.
The emotions you try to suppress with food will likely return quickly. Additionally, you’ll feel guilty about overeating.
Instead of immediately grabbing food when an impulse arises, take a pause. Create some space between your urge and your action. Take a deep breath and slowly count to ten.
You can also drink a glass of water when food cravings arise. Sometimes your body can confuse thirst with hunger if you are dehydrated.
Your body can also help you when it comes to exercise and rest. If you feel tired after sitting in front of a computer for a long time, most likely your body needs some movement. Take some time to work out or go for a walk.
Suppose you feel exhausted after several days or weeks of intensive workouts. In that case, your body is sending you a signal that you need some rest and recovery. Make sure to either reduce your exercise load or take a break.
Your body is your friend
I used to let my mind and ego control my body. I’d sacrifice my sleep to finish a work project or check off all the items on my to-do list. I’d ignore pain and fatigue to complete my workouts. I’d follow a strict diet, ignoring my hunger pangs.
I used to feel frustrated and disappointed when my body did not do what I wanted it to do. I’d blame your body for not being strong, thin, or healthy. I’d continue pushing and then wonder why I always felt anxious, exhausted, and sick.
After my shingles experience, I’m learning to listen to my body and give it what it needs, whether it’s sleep, nourishment, hydration, rest, and movement. I’m not 100% there yet, but I’m getting better every day.
When you pay attention to your body’s messages and make necessary adjustments, you can improve your physical and mental health. Also, by listening to your body’s needs, you can optimize your energy levels and improve your life.