Are physical symptoms trying to tell us something?

Last year I had to do some teaching at the university. This turned out to be a really demanding day for me. I had to make an early start, and the weather was cold and rainy. The room that we had been allocated was inadequately heated, to the extent that we had to keep our coats on for most of the day. There were some unusually tricky dynamics to deal with in the group I was teaching, and there were no facilities in the building to get food or a drink. By the end of the day, I felt that I had done as well as I could in the circumstances but I was exhausted.

That evening I felt a little unwell and had an early night. I wanted to be in good shape for my work commitments the following day. Maybe I had picked up a bug though, because I had to get up several times through the night to throw up. Each time, I would think 'Maybe I will be OK after this - maybe I will still be OK to go to work'. It became increasingly clear though that I would not be OK to go to work the following day, as time and time again I had to get out of bed to be sick. But I still kept hoping - after all, I had important plans for the day which could not be covered by anybody else.

Finally, as I got up at 6.30am, still mentally preparing to go to work, reality dawned. I felt constantly nauseous. I was frequently needing to be sick. My body felt heavy, difficult to move, and extremely stiff. Like it or not, there was no way I was going to work today - I was ill. I sent a message to my colleagues, asking them to cancel and rearrange my schedule for the day.

What happened next is something that I have experienced several times before. As I acknowledged that I was unwell and needed to rest, as I returned to bed, I immediately felt much better. I was tired and quickly drifted back to sleep, but much of the nausea, stiffness and heaviness was gone. When I woke up an hour later, I felt fine. 'Maybe I could get in for the afternoon' I thought. I stood up, starting to plan for the day as I did so. As I did so I was overtaken by a wave of nausea, stiffness and heaviness. Acknowledging that I was not, in fact, OK, I returned again to bed. I rested for the rest of the day, and returned to work feeling well the day after.

Most of us, at some time, have experienced something like this. When we have plans, our physical symptoms can become so strong that we have no choice but to change them. And then when we are comfortable, resting, staying at home, they ease. In the past this has made me question my decision to stay at home - am I really OK, and being a bit of a fraud by staying off work? It seems wrong to be at home on the sick but feeling OK. And yet every time I have started to do a bit more the symptoms have once again increased so as to stop me.

Now I have started to understand that sometimes physical symptoms are there to tell us something. Physical symptoms are not simply a marker of the extent of biological disease or injury. Although sometimes symptoms can be directly caused by some biological process in the body, usually the picture is far more complex. One of the most important functions of our physical symptoms is to shape our behaviour in a direction that is beneficial to our health. In other words, to tell us something. On the occasion I wrote about, my symptoms were trying to tell me that I needed to rest - possibly while my body fought the beginnings of an infection. Once I heard and accepted that message, the symptoms eased. They had served their purpose and were not needed while I was resting, although were clearly ready to rear up again if needed.

Long-term physical symptoms can also be understood in this way. Symptoms can be the body's way of trying to shape our behaviour for the benefit of our health. While constantly fighting against these symptoms so we can keep going may seem like the only solution, it can also be helpful to think 'What might my body be trying to tell me with this symptom?'

Sometimes patterns can develop which seem to feed and increase physical symptoms. For example somebody who never knew how to stop or put their own needs first may feel increasingly exhausted and in pain as their body tries to make them stop and rest. Increased periods of physically having to stop do not translate into rest as their mind starts to work on overdrive and frustration increases. A fight develops between the intensity of the symptoms and the willpower of the individual which steadily makes things worse. As physical symptoms ramp up, it becomes hard to see that they ever could have had any helpful function. However, the symptoms developed initially as a way to encourage the individual to stop and rest. Even after many years, the ability to stop and let things be would be useful for this individual.

For many, it is exactly this ability which marks the beginning of a healing journey. The moment we can stop and let things be just as they are before choosing how best to respond is the moment when our recovery begins. Maybe we can also find the space to ask ourselves sometimes 'If this symptom was trying to tell me something, what might it be?'. Doing so can give us the space to experiment with different ways of responding, some of which may lead to significant improvements in some of our symptoms.

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