Learn to listen. It's good for your health.

Friend: “Did you hear what I just said?”

Me: “Sorry, I was just thinking about something and got distracted.”

You know how the story goes. You get caught in a wandering thought (or Facebook feed) that seems much more important and interesting while someone else you care about is talking to you. You end up wasting each other’s time and disappointing a friend. We’ve all been there.

While listening to other people is not always difficult, active listening can be challenging (you know… actually listening). Especially with smartphones by our side, it’s even easier to get distracted and perhaps start thinking about how ridiculous Drake’s latest music video is. Instead of ignoring the person you’re communicating with, be present, and take in the info before you think about what your own agenda is.

We need to take the same approach when listening to our own body. Time after time we hear signals from our body telling us that something doesn’t feel right. A dull pain in your right shoulder. Tightness in your calf. A clicking in your knee. The pain randomly goes away… and then it comes back.

Sometimes, we become accustomed to avoiding the pain because it’s just bearable enough that we can push through it. Or, we pop some Advil and let medication do the trick. I’ve done it many times in the past and it. We’re only delaying the inevitable result of our body breaking down physically and mentally because we fail to listen. 

Pain is actually a good thing (in moderation of course). It’s our natural alarm system, our body’s way of telling us, “hey, something isn’t right so you should probably change what you’re doing right now.” Our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) continuously receives signals from sensory neurons throughout our body. Nociceptors, sensory neurons that deal with pain, detect potentially damaging stimuli and send those signals back to the brain. In other words, you may feel pain when acute damage has been done (e.g. sprained ankle) or when there is a perceived threat to your body. 

The idea of a perceived threat is important to think about because it acts as a warning signal. We all know that rolling your ankle hurts and damages your ligaments. But, how often do we do we change our habits when we feel a dull pain pain in our shoulders after sitting in front of a computer all day? It might not be that bad today, but the long term wear and tear cost could be pretty bad. 

So, what should we do? First, pause and take a deep breath. Try to do this throughout the day. Start to actively listen to your body and what it’s telling you. Do you feel any pain? When do you feel it? Is there a certain activity, movement, or posture that you think is causing you to feel that way? That simple step of listening is significant enough that you’ll start to get some clues. In most cases you can probably make an easy change yourself. Sometimes you’ll need the help of others, or a health practitioner, but you’ve done the important step already.

Listening is a powerful tool. It’s good for your health. And, by the way, it can be great way to earn some brownie points with your friends.