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How to Listen to Your Body (and Become Happy Again)

Happy Jumping Woman

“Keeping your body healthy is an expression of gratitude to the whole cosmos—the trees, the clouds, everything.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s embarrassing, isn’t it?

You don’t want to make a fuss about tiny health annoyances.

But you feel lethargic for no apparent reason. You get constipated, especially when you travel. You have difficulty sleeping.  And your hormones are all over the place.  You hold onto that niggly five or ten pounds like your life depends on it.

Sound familiar? I’ve been there too.

I was working at a dream job and living on the French Riveria. I was paid a lot of money to help Fortune 500 Companies with their IT strategies.

I worked in cities like Paris, Dublin, London, and Manchester during the week, staying in luxury hotels and flying to my home in Nice on weekends. We partied like rock stars on the beaches, and in exclusive clubs and glamorous villas. At twenty-nine, I was a management-level executive on the cusp of becoming a partner.

Meanwhile, my body wasnt happy. I was chronically tired. I slept poorly. And despite daily exercise and yoga, I couldnt figure out my weight gain.  

I tried the radical Master Cleanse—drinking lemon juice and maple syrup for a week. But the extra weight would creep back.

My hormones went crazy. When I stopped birth control pills, my menstrual cycles stopped. I wasn’t sure if that was the reason for my blotchy skin and depression. And the worst part was my mood. I wasn’t happy, despite all the glitzy outside trappings.

The One Thing Most People Never Learn To Do

Then I did something most people never learn to do: I listened.

I felt great after practicing yoga. I took a baby step: I practiced more yoga and eventually attended teacher training sessions. Fast-forward a couple years….

I quit my job, packed my belongings, and moved to a yoga retreat center in Thailand. The move felt natural and organic.

I lived simply in a tiny bungalow and taught yoga retreats to tourists. And my health improved. I was sleeping well. My periods eventually returned. I felt better and better, and my sparkle returned too.

The first and most important step is to stop and listen. Your body and mind are intimately connected. Listen to your body and you'll learn a ton. Start with tiny steps and you’ll reach your pot of gold quicker than you'd expect.

You can do this.

You’d think doing so would be impossible, but it’s not. I'll tell you how.

But first, let’s look at three core principles that could save you.

Don’t Make This Monumental Mistake

Most people ignore their small but annoying health issues. Nothing about your health is inconsequential. Everything matters. Your digestion. Your ability to lose belly fat. Your bowel movements.

You’re not alone if you want to run screaming and bury your head in the sand. How about changing your mindset?

Rather than categorizing what is wrong with you, notice how your body throws you clues. For example, you aren’t going to the bathroom every day. Usually for a very simple reason—lack of dietary fiber. Try adding an apple and ground flax to your breakfast and see what happens.

The Alarming Truth About Stress

It can make or break your healthiest intentions. When we perceive danger, stress is our body’s natural response.

For cave people, stress came when a lion was about to pounce; we needed to run like lightning.

Under stress, we optimize our resources for survival and shutdown non-essential functions. Translation? Your digestion grinds to a halt, your sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) convert to cortisol, and your blood sugar skyrockets.

This is okay now and then. Are you in a state of constant, low-grade stress? Imagine the havoc and inner turmoil.

A few condition-linked stresses include IBS, constipation, weight gain, insomnia, high blood sugar, and hormone irregularities—for women, missed or absent periods, severe PMS, and fertility issues. And these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Your body and mind are like the matrix.

The Western approach to medicine is to examine each problem separately, so you end up with a different specialist for each malady.

In Eastern medicines, your body is a united whole rather than a constellation of unrelated parts. Your insomnia may be the result of high stress. Or your constipation and weight gain may be due to a complete absence of fiber in your diet.

Now let’s talk about what you need to do.

But first, I must introduce you to your personal, world-class health advocate. And it’s not your doctor, your chiropractor, or even your yoga teacher.

It’s you.

1. What silence can teach you about listening.

Set aside time to listen to your own deepest wishes. I searched for answers outside of myself, looking for rigid rules and diets. I used food to shut off my thoughts. It was hard, but I gradually let my truths surface. I know you can do it too. Decide on a time, and set aside ten minutes each day. Breathe deeply and listen.

How are you feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally?

Have a journal nearby to jot down any thoughts. Notice what pops into your head. Bring yourself back to your breath if you start to get lost in thoughts.

2. What would happen if you followed your passions right now?

You can do this right now in tiny steps. Make time to do the things you love.

How do you most want to spend each day? Write a list of your priorities and brainstorm easy solutions.

Exercise: wake up twenty minutes earlier. Do a series of sit-ups, push-ups, leg lifts, squats, etc.

Time with your children: say no to superfluous activities—committees, boards, etc.

More creative time: schedule your time on weekends for writing, painting, or whatever you love.

Treat it like a priority appointment.

When I worked at a corporate job, I’d wake early to practice yoga at home before work. I didn’t miss the sleep, and I was much more productive and happier during the day. I couldn’t control the rest of the day, but I relished my sacred morning ritual.

3. Say goodbye to your job if it makes you unhappy.

Right now, maybe you need it to support your family. No problem. Make sure you limit your working hours. Make the rest count.

Turn off your TV and put away your iPhone. Spend engaged time with your family. Thinking about work takes you away from important leisure activities.

Your people will always be important—your children, parents, siblings, friends, and your tribe. Don’t sweat the little things. Cultures with high longevity emphasize personal relationships, support networks, and family. The elders are the big shots, not the richest in the village.

4. How to glow from the inside out.

We are genetically wired to thrive on a whole-foods diet. A rule of thumb: the more processed the food, the less you should eat.

Most of the diets that actually work—paleo, low-carb, and vegan—all have whole foods at their base. They vary in content, but all encourage vegetables, fruits, and good-quality protein sources.

Return to those niggly health issues. Take an honest look at your diet. What could you do better? What things would you be willing to change?

I used to systematically overeat healthy foods. My diet was great, but I used foods, even healthy ones, to quell my inner unhappiness. I hated my job. I felt lonely and isolated.

Start with one change per month. Not more. Drink a glass of water with your meals and skip sugary drinks.Or eat a salad with your lunch or dinner.

5. Here’s a little-known secret about your mind.

How do you feel after eating a plate of fried foods? Or a big meal in a restaurant followed by dessert? I feel fuzzy and sluggish.

What about after eating a bowl of candy? Like a space cadet? Sugar spikes our blood sugar and makes concentration impossible.

Want to keep your mind clear and alert? Choose fresh vegetables and fruits, high-quality animal products, legumes like lentils and beans, healthy fats from nuts and seeds, and high-quality cold-pressed oils.

Why Most People Fail Miserably

Simply put, they don’t prioritize their own health. Don't fall down that rabbit hole.

Your job is not to put everyone else’s health above your own.

Your job is not to make excuses about what you should be doing but aren’t.

Your job is to be your most enthusiastic health advocate. You must fight tooth and nail to make stellar choices for your health.

Your good intentions are worthless if you never take action. I’ve been there too. I’ve ignored my body. It was a mistake.

Start making tiny changes, like having oatmeal and an apple for breakfast. Notice how much better you feel. You’ll be chomping at the bit to do more.

Living well makes you feel better and happier. But it requires a little courage and determination.

Start with one tiny step in the right direction. Take five minutes now and decide what your first step is.

You know you deserve a healthier life.

And more happiness.

Happy jumping woman image via Shutterstock

About Jessica Blanchard

Jessica Blanchard, registered dietitian and Ayurvedic practitioner, helps busy people re-energize with super simple food, yoga and wellness strategies that work. Grab your free 7-Day Plan and learn to eat, move and live better in 10 minutes a day.

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  • Hi Jessica,
    Great post!

    That’s so true!
    When I started eating mindfully, I gradually became mindful about my whole life.
    Thanks for the tips!

  • Hi Jessica
    Thanks for sharing your tips, I agree with all of them. Sounds like you had quite the exciting life there! Like you said, we are not really listening to our body. We have all these issues, but are not aware of what may be causing them all. Listening to my body is what led me to stop drinking alcohol in any form..I never drank heavily but I always felt sick no matter what. I remember feeling all gross after going out with friends one night after having had only two beers. I said from that day on, I was not going to drink anymore, and I stuck to that. That was 11 years ago.

    I don’t think there is any one size fits all way of eating, though like you said, a diet rich in whole unprocessed foods is usually going to be a solid foundation. We all have a unique
    ‘chemistry’ and when we really tune in, we can put together an optimal health plan.

    Great post!

  • Jessica,

    Great post. I was wondering, do you (or did you) ever feel like you “arrived” at a place where your default was “listen to my body”? With all the distractions in our lives today, it is harder than ever to be present in your body.

    Also, a while ago I listened to a podcast by Ryan Daniel Moran in which he talks about 6 habits to be a better business person. One of them is to eat right. He draws a literal correlation between nutrition and income. Because better food creates a clear head which generates more energy for ideas and business opportunities. His podcast is here: http://freedomfastlane.com/daily-success-habits/

    Thanks!
    Lizzie

  • Hi Lizzie,

    I try my utmost to listen to my body – especially with regards to things that aren’t necessarily best thought about with our “logical” brain. But this is not always easy. The more I practice the easier it becomes. An example from my current life: I have a 16-month old boy. He still falls asleep with me at night, and I have never used the “let them cry it out” method. It just seems unnatural and I have a gut reaction to his cries. A recent study showed that the cry it out method works, but babies can feel abandoned. A perfect example of what is out gut feeling, and what society tells us we “should” do.

    Listening to my body has become much easier with food. The better that I eat, the easier the choices become. To me the link between good diet and income makes perfect sense. I know if I eat crap I can’t concentrate or focus. I will listen to the podcast.

    Thank you for your comment and best of luck,

    jessica

  • Jen Hess

    Excellent article! It’s way too easy to let distraction and habit guide our eating and lifestyle habits. Thank you for the reminder to be mindful.

  • Hi Kelli,

    Each step of my life has seemed natural. Now I look back and think, wow, I lived in Europe and Thailand….Right now I live in my hometown of New Orleans, and couldn’t be happier.

    Sometimes we know things deep down but want to ignore them. Alcohol is a big one. Congratulations for taking the step to cut it out. I find there is a tremendous social pressure to drink, especially in New Orleans.

    The more I work with clients, the less I”m attached to getting them to follow a “prescribed” or diet with a label. I try to get people to find a way of eating that is realistic and works for them. And there are a amazing foods that boost our immune system that are simple and cheap: vegetables. So if people eat more of those, they will eat less of the processed junk.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    jessica

  • Hi Benny,

    Thanks for your comment. Mindfulness is contagious, don’t you think?

    If you become mindful in one area you can’t help that it seeps into others…..

  • Thanks Jen. Our society is so focused on productive, busy, and achievement, sometimes we forget to stop. And especially to appreciate what we have and to figure out what we need.

  • Charisse Gerome

    Great post, Jess. Everything you say is so true. I think one of the hardest parts is to realize that it’s not once and done. Once you get the hang of it, there will be many times when you have to go back to basics to get the full result. At least I have found it to be the case with me. It doesn’t mean it’s a failure when you do, it just mean’s we’re human.

  • Absolutely. And that’s the clincher. When things get hard we tend to look for answers elsewhere, or try to pass the blame onto someone else. Stopping to listen is imperative at these moments.

  • Leslie Kernisan, MD

    How wonderful that you were able to change your life! I hope your story inspires others to do the same…so many people are stuck in stress, unhappiness, and unhealthiness.

    I especially like your advice about starting with small changes, and with listening to yourself.

  • Great reminder that our health is one of the most important things we have. And I so agree that one tiny step at a time in the right direction is the best way forward.

  • holly

    You make things sound so do-able. Thanks for the great tips.

  • Helen McCarthy

    Very inspiring article Jessica. Thanks for sharing. I definitely listen more to my body now than when I was younger.

    Although I’m not a big sweet tooth chocolate is my kryptonite so trying to reduce my sugar intake is the next food goal for me. That and finding an alternative to toast or cereal for breakfast. Maybe this year. 😉

  • Hi Helen,
    Chocolate isn’t the worst food in the world. Pure chocolate is chock-full of anti-oxidants. The problems come when it is mixed with sugar. I suggest getting very high quality dark chocolate, if you aren’t already doing that. I have found individually wrapped dark belgian chocolates at Whole Foods. And this is a great treat after lunch….

    I highly recommend oatmeal for breakfast. The fiber in oats helps to reduce cholesterol. Add ground flax, an apple, and cinnamon and you have a high does of anti-oxidants, which protect you against cellular damage. Oh yes, and don’t forget berries.

  • You are welcome holly. Breaking things up into small steps, and doing a couple of those has helped me!

  • Thanks Ellen.

  • Thanks Leslie,
    The older I get the more I firmly believe that our mind is an enormous player in our happiness. It is kind of cliche, but many people with very little are happier than those with lots of material possessions. In yoga I often teach private clients who are wealthy, but unhappy and unhealthy….

  • Gay Merrill

    Amazing post, Jessica. I believe like you that we are our own best doctors. No one else knows how we feel but us. I started to make changes to my diet last year as well as drinking 12 glasses of water and walking daily. Those changes have made a huge difference to my emotional state. I feel calmer and less reactive. I’ve printed your post to give my daughter. Your story is very inspiring. Thank you and congrats on being published here.

  • Well done. I’m happy to hear about your changes. It’s amazing how simple changes like drinking more water and moving make us feel.

    Thank you for sharing my post with your daughter. Please let me know what she thinks!

  • Emma Mclean

    Great post Jessica. As someone who shared that jet setter life with you, your change is inspirational. My experience has been that focusing on yourself and listening to yourself becomes more challenging when kids are on the scene. It is easy to let their demands be your priority. That is my challenge at least!

  • Hi Emma,
    Nice to hear from you. Oh yes, kids make things that much more of a balancing act. My yoga practice has certainly changed since having my little one 16 months ago. Sometimes I try to do yoga with him. And sometimes I let my husband know that I really need to get to a yoga class by myself. I did that this morning. And I try to encourage him to get to the gym/yoga when I can watch Dylan. My other trick is waking up very early to practice yoga before hubby and baby wake up….

    The jet setting days were great, but I’m also glad that they are behind me….

  • Jamie

    Enjoyed this!

  • Thanks Jamie, glad you enjoyed it!

  • Jennifer Moses

    This was such a great article! Loved! I’m just curious, I would LOVE to quit my job and do exactly what you did (yoga retreat in Thailand). Did you save up enough money to be able to do this? I feel like I can never, ever quit my job because of bills/save for retirement, etc. I just wondered if you put away an “x” amount of money prior to quitting.

  • melanie_sakowski

    Mmm yes, also slippery elm to oats, and lots of nuts