The Edge: Peak Performance Psychology

Essentials of optimal performance

The Body Knows

If your mind discounts stress, you can count on your body to signal the truth,

A popular 20th century radio drama (and comic book and movie and video game) recounted the adventures of The Shadow, a crime-fighting vigilante. Each episode began: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

Paraphrasing, I share here three stories illustrating the ways in which our bodies inform us about ourselves when we ignore or discount our thoughts and feelings.

Let’s call her Joan. (Like the others, she’s a real person, but I’m disguising some elements to protect each person’s identity.) She’s got a stress fracture. Jack has got IBS. Julie feels like she’s coming down with a cold … again and again, even if it never materializes.

Three different people; three different sets of symptoms and illnesses. One thing in common: the body knows.

Joan is a competitive runner. Now in her mid-40s, she’s got a strong base, but it’s built on a precarious foundation: years of under-eating, over-training, and injuries. In a recent race, she heard an ominous sound, felt a twinge…but completed the race. Only then did excruciating pain set in.

She felt angry, sad, and scared. This activity that she’s so passionate about: How can her body have let her down, preventing her from doing what she loves?!

After many tears and much soul searching, Joan sat herself down, grudgingly unable to ignore the evidence any longer. Time to gain enough weight to restart her periods; time to pace herself; time to appreciate incremental improvement; time to reassess her race strategy and goals. Time to see what she can learn from her body.

Jack is in his early 40s, a highly successful stock broker. He’s ambitious, has accomplished many of his life’s goals. He also feels chronically tense, has frequent sleepless nights, even occasional panic attacks. Preoccupation has kept him from being fully available to his family. He’s been able to dismiss all of these signals. Increasingly, though, he’s become conscious of a huge cost, one he can’t ignore: he’s developed IBS, irritable bowel syndrome. The pain in his gut has brought him to his knees.

(If you’d like a graphic jazzy description of IBS, check out a song on this theme recorded by Canadian trio, The Arrogant Worms.)

Recently, Jack—usually mild-mannered and affable—set some non-negotiable work conditions with his boss. If changes are made in the job demand, perhaps he’ll stay. If not—he’s made it clear that he’ll leave. He’s valuable enough to the company that his boss wants him to stay.

You’d think Julie would know better. Now 68, she’s been fortunate; she loves her work as an architectural consultant and over the years has been able to modify her work to suit her preferences. She’s got no intention of retiring, although she keeps talking about doing less. At the same time, she jokes that even though she only is in the office three days a weeks, she works a seven-day week, what with consulting, writing, and presentations to other firms.

For the last three Saturdays—like clockwork—Julie has awakened with the tell-tale harbingers of a cold: a scratchy throat, mild congestion, and fatigue despite enough sleep. She knows these symptoms. They’re signs of exhaustion.

Julie also knows enough to recognize that if she brings herself to a screeching halt for a day—or two—she’ll be fine. And sure enough: by Monday of each week, she’s got her usual energy back.

But: is it worth it? Is that how Julie wants to design her weekends, just recovering from the stress of work? Her body is telling her what she’s discounted in her mind. Something’s got to give: and if it isn’t her health, then it’s going to have to be her schedule. She may not feel 68—whatever that feels like—but clearly, her body is giving her valuable information.

These three people are, as I said, real. Will they truly listen to their bodies and make the necessary changes?

I’ll report back in six months.

 

If you’d like to be in contact with me, whether regarding the mind-body connection or some other aspect of performance psychology, send me a note through my website, www.theperformingedge.com

 

Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author whose practice in Toronto, The Performing Edge, focuses on sport and performance psychology.

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