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Symptoms as Signals, Discomfort as Doorway

Disclaimer; certain conditions require medications, talk to a doctor about your options.

Symptoms are uncomfortable by nature, designed to make us pay attention. They are signals from an intelligent, self-sensing, self-healing body and learning to listen can help us truly heal and perform better than ever.

Let’s say you eat a berry that causes you to vomit. Rather than learn not to pick that kind again, the Western approach tends to treat symptoms as problems to be fixed or talked through. If we could, we would create a pill that makes us able to eat the berry without vomiting rather than live without something we feel entitled to enjoy, or we would go to talk therapy to understand what it is about our past that makes us unable to enjoy the berry. In the end, the fruit is still toxic, and we should probably pick something else.

Learning to trust that those symptoms are signals helps us detect problems earlier, heal the root cause of illness and trauma, and make leaps in our performance. If we suppress these internal messages, we can exacerbate underlying problems and narrow our options over time. 

 

Medicating Our Way Out

Anxiety is a natural response to stress. This deep psycho-emotional mechanism is a signal that our stress response is firing and should be listened to. The medications prescribed for anxiety can keep us from flipping our lid, but don’t teach us the skill of calming ourselves down. 

Medication can fail, cause side effects, and dull our senses. We start to miss important cues and can’t feel the edge until we’re right on it. When we use the voluntary breath to calm anxiety, we gain situational awareness and agency over our bodies. 

Breath research shows voluntary breath to be our most effective intrinsic tool to master the nervous system. With breath, we rewire our brains to better assess the needs creating the symptom, and solve problems creatively. With practice, we become in tune with our bodies to know where we are on a spectrum of arousal, gaining abilities to navigate our state before anxiety can grip us. 

Our collective anxiety is stemming from issues we can solve if we regulate through it. Imagine what we can do if we face these problems as self-regulated masters of our bodies? We can be calm, smart, creative, active participants in changing our healthcare, policing practices, and economic options. But not if we’re numbing and narrowing options in reactivity to it all. 

 

Talk Therapy

Psychology is great for excavating material from the past and understanding things about ourselves and the world. Talk therapy alone, however, can leave us stuck in the story, justifying our discomfort. We analyze ourselves for having symptoms and miss the process of healing in the body, where the symptoms live. 

The body holds our memories of suffering and can be an uncomfortable place. When traumatic memories surface, the body recalls how it survived and goes into fight, flight, or freeze reactions. The past is suddenly present. This makes associated places, smells, and situations difficult to move through in daily life. When the survival mechanisms start their process, we tend to stay reactive and run from the body to the mind to talk about it. We’ve practiced rationalizing the pain. That’s the moment to stop fondling the analysis and breathe into the body’s reactions. We can participate with physiology through breath and embodied practices to regulate state. This trains the body to restore resources when activated by the trauma. Instead of repeated reactivation and self-judgment, we carve empowered associations with the triggers. 

Getting the brain reconnected to the body in this way allows us to learn from experiences without feeling victimized by them. We can bring in the mind’s analysis once we’ve resolved the physiology in the moment. Through this approach, we shift from asking ‘why did this happen to me’ to ‘how did this happen for me?’

 

Trusting the Signals

Rather than dull the symptoms, sensitivity should be the goal. The more we can engage with our internal cues, the more we can fine-tune the instrument of the body. Rather than a numbing dependency, the side effects of sensitive responsiveness to signals are presence, learning, and adaptation. With practice, you create lifestyle changes to meet your unique needs. You build confidence and trust in the body that helps widen your tolerance to stress.

We are self-sensing and have bodies that heal, minds that recover. Healing requires active participation with techniques that guide us into the body, not away from it. The moment a symptom disrupts life, we can breathe. Take ownership of the body and agency over options. Pain is not the same as suffering, and the messages inside the pain can guide us toward actions that will help us feel better and optimize our lives. 

 

*https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/drug-use-therapeutic.htm

**https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/medical/alcohol-sales-on-the-rise-during-covid-19-pandemic/ar-BB125vA3

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Emily Hightower

Emily Hightower is a Resilience Coach and Founder of Intrinsic. She is a trauma-informed breath coach, somatic yoga instructor, and a holistic health coach. Her Skill of Stress Online Course offers the core skills she uses to train people to trust their physiology and shift their problems into opportunities.

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