By Debbie Love | Photographed by Deb Peterson
Have you ever felt like you’ve lost touch with your body? Maybe you feel a pain in your back or neck, and can’t remember anything that might have caused it. Physical and mental afflictions such as headaches, feelings of lethargy, and digestive troubles are annoying because they appear to creep up on you without prior warning.
The truth is that these things take a while, sometimes months or years, to grow in your body. The psychological truth is that you didn’t pay attention to the signs your body was sending you. We often wait until we have pain, distress, and discomfort that can lead to costly, and sometimes painful, medical interventions.
Research shows that people who notice and respond to early warning signals from their bodies are less likely to develop a debilitating physical or mental condition. This same research shows that the common underlying cause of these conditions is a lack of body sense, or body awareness—being aware of changes in your body and taking action.
Body sense is the ability to pay attention to yourself, to feel your sensations, emotions, and movements in the present moment without the influence of judgmental thoughts. Thoughts like—Am I sick or just lazy? When and how did I gain so much weight? Does my life really matter to anyone?—cause you to lose the true nature of body/awareness.
The ability to pay attention to your body has a name. Alan Fogel in “The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Body Sense,” calls it embodied self-awareness. This awareness is based in sensing, feeling, and acting—in the present moment. When you practice embodied awareness, you are spontaneous and open to change.
Martha Sanford is a marvelous example of a woman with a high level of embodied self-awareness. She was healthy and happy and, as recommended, got yearly mammograms. Five years ago she got the phone call none of us ever wants to get: “We see something on your mammogram.”
Martha had not detected anything while doing her self exams. She had a lumpectomy, and the diagnosis was breast cancer. She knew from the beginning that she wanted implants, and her surgeon suggested that she go to St. Louis as there were no plastic surgeons in Mountain Home at the time. Martha’s surgeries involved removal of tissue around the cancer and eight lymph nodes, a mastectomy, and implants.
After almost two healthy years, she woke up one day to discover something was wrong. Her breast was very warm. She followed the signals her body gave her and went to St. Louis, where her implant was removed because of infection.
Through it all, Martha kept her positive attitude. Each time her body sent her signals, she reacted immediately. She had total body and self awareness. Two months after her infection, Martha had her implant replaced in Mountain Home.
Yet again, Martha’s body would send her signals that something was awry. Nearly two years after her new implant, fluid built up in her abdomen. She had it drained three times.
“When your body sends you a loud and clear message,” Martha says, “give it the immediate attention it needs.”
As time went by, Martha felt less energized than usual. Her husband, Joe, said she seemed unhappy. When she told him she had gained some weight and was feeling a bit down on herself, he suggested she join a weight loss program.
Martha did join a program, and lost 25 pounds. For the first time in 20 years her cholesterol improved—down from 280 to 180—and her blood pressure was normal. She regained her positive outlook and was ready to “get back in the game.”
Today, Martha stays physically active by walking five to six times a week, either on a treadmill or outside, which she prefers, where she can enjoy the fresh air and savor the world around her. She golfs, and is known for having hit a hole in one. She relaxes by getting up early and having some alone time. She gets great joy from her family, friends and two grandchildren—Alex and Sydney.
“All of us should surround ourselves with positive, happy people,” she says.
When asked what advice she has for women about body sense and awareness, Martha’s thoughts are quick and insightful. “Your body is constantly talking to you. Stop and listen. Don’t ignore the signals it sends when something has changed or is not right. Be your own best advocate. Seek medical advice and if you aren’t satisfied with the diagnosis, have your medical professional dig deeper. Let your body guide you. Don’t ignore the signals being sent.”
M! April/May 2012