Don't Ignore Your Body's "Check Engine Lights"

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You may not know exactly what’s going on “under the hood” but your warning lights can help you realize there’s a problem.

You may not know exactly what’s going on “under the hood” but your warning lights can help you realize there’s a problem.

Dear Kara,

I don’t know about you, but I was taught to pay attention when my car’s “check engine” light came on. Granted, we can’t always drop everything and head directly to a mechanic the moment the warning light pops up, but we should immediately start making a plan to get it there. Perhaps we can’t get it to the mechanic till next Monday, but in the meantime we avoid long trips and may cut down on daily use if we can. Believe it or not, our bodies have very similar “check engine lights” that pop up and yet so many of us go on ignoring them.

Have you ever noticed how you’re much more susceptible to headaches and fatigue when you’re not getting enough sleep? How you’re more susceptible to catching a cold when you’re working long hours? Or how you lack energy and motivation when you aren’t feeding yourself the healthiest foods? In so many ways, our bodies try to tell us what it is we need to change but in our fast-paced, over-scheduled world we often find it difficult to slow down and listen.

I’ve personally noticed my “check engine lights” flashing on a few occasions already this year and I know that it’s not always easy to admit that you see them. In the past, I think I got so swept up in exciting things I wanted to do, travel plans, and/or work that I genuinely DIDN’T see them but, thankfully, with more mindful reflection and insight into myself I’m starting to find these signals from my body more difficult to ignore, but easier to understand.

I’m not saying that it’s easier to have to deal with my “check engine light” but it certainly makes things better for me in the long-run. Sometimes it has meant cancelling plans or turning down a great opportunity. This feels especially difficult when it affects other people, like when I’ve turned down new opportunities for blog collaborations because I really needed to protect my day to rest or when I’ve cancelled plans to finally visit the Sacromonte caves because I was suffering from an expected bout of allergies and knew it would result in one more sleepless night. In all of these cases, I’ve known what was best for ME but it wasn’t easy to take the actions necessary.

Usually, if' I’m feeling lethargic I’ve got to get out and move more.

Usually, if' I’m feeling lethargic I’ve got to get out and move more.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel that I can lay out a set list of guidelines for how to handle these “check engine light” situations the way your mechanic could do for your car. Each person is different and therefore what helps to get my body (mind and soul) back on track may not work for you. However, I’ll share a few things that work for me in case reading through them gives you inspiration for your own “back on track plan”:

1.) When I feel lethargic: Lacking energy doesn’t only come from not getting enough sleep (in fact, it can even come from getting too much sleep)! Whenever I find that I’ve felt lethargic for more than a day or two I take some time to try to figure out why. Often, it’s something obvious (that I just haven’t paid attention to) like not eating enough protein or not getting enough exercise. I will thus try to work in one or both of these things earlier in the day to help me feel more energetic for the rest of the day. If I’ve been feeling especially lethargic, waiting until the evening to exercise may not be best as it will give me a boost of energy at night when I ideally don’t want it and instead want to get in a good night’s rest. Sometimes, getting up earlier to do a workout—although my body at first resists—is actually the best option as it ensures more energy during my working hours and more tiredness when I get to bedtime.

When I feel weak: Have you ever noticed there is one part of your body that ‘goes’ first when you’re starting to get sick? For me, it’s usually my neck or my eyes that start to feel sore first, eventually leading into an overall body ache, and then the common cold. In the past, I just thought of this as the inevitable progression but since I’ve started to heed my “check engine lights” better I’ve realized that this doesn’t have to be the case! If I notice my immune system is starting to weaken, I’ll amp up my citrus intake, drink more water, and make sure not to miss my daily multivitamin. I’ll also call it a night earlier and be more forgiving of myself if I don’t check off every item on my to-do list. I know that if I pay attention to my “warning light” as soon as I see it, I can avoid multiple days of truly being sick (and not being able to accomplish ANYthing) later.

Sometimes, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than curled up on the couch.

Sometimes, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than curled up on the couch.

When I feel sad: We’ve spoken before about how it’s totally normal, even when living abroad, to feel sad or have days when you feel lonely. For many, it would help to surround yourself with friends when this “check engine light” comes on, but for me I find the opposite to be true. Especially when my sadness can’t be directly connected to anything obvious going on in my life, I don’t want to be around others at these times because it feels like extra work to “try to be okay” since I can’t exactly explain why I feel down. Instead, I like to take some time alone to disconnect from the world and avoid my phone and/or social media accounts (letting people who may need to reach me know what the situation is). I will allow myself to lay under the covers on the couch and watch countless high school-themed Netflix movies. I drink lots of tea and eat warm meals of my favorite comfort foods. And I don’t give any power to thoughts of productivity or pangs of guilt.

When I feel unhealthy: In complete contrast to my comfort food-remedy above, on other days I know I need to turn things around! I will make healthier lifestyle choices seem fun by researching new recipes on the internet before doing my grocery shopping, going with my husband or a friend to check out a local produce market, and/or finding an accountability partner to embark on a workout challenge of our choosing. I’m not one to go to the gym often, but I love using my FitBit Versa to track my steps and will use this to motivate me to walk home from lessons, often while listening to an upbeat podcast. Generally, starting with lower-impact changes provide noticeable enough results in the way my body feels that I’m then happy and even excited to make bigger changes.

When I’ve already got too much on my plate, sometimes I have to just walk away for a half hour.

When I’ve already got too much on my plate, sometimes I have to just walk away for a half hour.

When I can’t get motivated: For me, one of the hardest things to deal with is when I know I have SO much that needs to get accomplished and yet I can’t get my mind to focus or “switch into the right gear” (if we want to keep up with this car analogy). When you’re already constantly checking the clock because you’re worried about deadlines it can feel impossible to step away from your tasks. However, I find that this is what works best to regain my motivation! I will literally set an alarm for myself for half an hour’s time, then put my phone on silent and shut down my computer while I do some journaling, reading, coloring, and/or listening to a feel-good podcast or the client sessions section of Jess Lively’s CSCHOOL course I bought earlier this year. Yoga, going for a walk, or exercises could be substituted if I have more time, but these lower-energy activities are usually what do the trick for me and allow my mind to wander away from worry, eventually returning to my tasks with newfound zeal.

There are so many different kinds of “check engine lights” that our bodies try to warn us with, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with these five examples. However, hopefully they’ve got you thinking of some clear warning signs YOUR body may be sending you. Even when it feels like you “don’t have time” to paid attention to these “blinking lights”—actually, ESPECIALLY when it feels like you don’t have time!—be sure to remind yourself of the time, energy, and difficulty you’ll be saving yourself if you listen now.

When you don’t take care of your engine in time, the results can be far worse.

When you don’t take care of your engine in time, the results can be far worse.

Allow me to humor you with this analogy just once more because I think it’s the most important part of the comparison: Nobody feels like taking the time out of their busy life to drop their car off at the mechanic and potentially go without its convenience for a few days. However, if you don’t do this you run the very real risk of your car breaking down at the worst possible moment, stranding you on a highway somewhere when you should be at an important meeting. If we’re not willing to take this losing bet with our (completely replaceable) vehicles, why are we so willing to take it with our one and only body?

Be kinder to yourself. Don’t treat your body like a machine that can be worn down day after day without care. Pay attention when it tells you it needs some inspection and love. You may not feel like you understand the reasons behind its different “check engine lights” now, but the more you try to listen, the more in-tune with your body, mind, and soul you’ll become and eventually you’ll feel more capable of giving it the care it needs. I know I sure do!


Sincerely,
Spain

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