Don’t Ignore Your Body’s “Check Engine Lights”
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We don’t know about you, but when we learned to drive, we were taught to pay attention when our 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 start making a plan to get it there. And if that means that we can’t get it to the mechanic till next Monday, in the meantime we avoid long trips and may cut down on daily use if we can. We like this metaphor for a car because, believe it or not, our bodies have very similar “check engine lights” that pop up, yet so many of us go on ignoring them.
For example, 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.
With the current situation forcing us all to slow down a bit, we think this is the perfect time to revisit this idea of checking in with ourselves. Just before we were all sent (more or less) inside, we noticed our “check engine lights” flashing on a few occasions already this year. We know that it is often easier to ignore them than to admit that you see them and, in everyday life, it is normal to be swept up in exciting things you want to do (travel plans, and/or work). However, life now is giving us a bit more time and space to have a mindful reflection of what we are actually feeling, making these signals more difficult to ignore, but easier to understand.
That doesn’t mean that it’s easier to have to deal with our “check engine lights” but it is definitely a push to investigate what is going on right now. This is because we can think differently about canceling plans or turning down what feel like great opportunities. By not having as much pressure to go out and be social, we find that we can dedicate more time to what we really need these days.
Unfortunately, we do not have a set list of guidelines for you on 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 each of us to get our body (mind and soul) back on track may not work for you. However, this is what we find has worked and is currently working for us in case reading through them gives you inspiration for your own “back on track plan.”
When we feel lethargic
Lacking energy doesn’t only come from not getting enough sleep (in fact, it can even come from getting too much sleep)! That is why, whenever we find that we have felt lethargic for more than a day or two, we take some time to try to figure out what the cause is. Often, it can be something obvious that we are just conveniently ignoring, like not eating enough protein or not getting enough exercise. If it is easy to identify this cause, then we try to dedicate time to improving the situation every day. It is not easy to change from one day to another, but we find that spending time making sure we are getting enough food or eating well (each in our own way), helps us have more energy.
For Dani, when she is feeling especially lethargic, she does something that might feel counter-intuitive and gets up early for an extra workout before the day starts. For her, getting up earlier to do a workout—although her body resists at first—can actually be the best option as it ensures more energy during working hours and actually feeling like she is ready to sleep when it is time for bed.
For Claudia, when she feels lethargic, she also tries to move her body and, especially, tries to get out into the fresh air (even if that just means opening a window). Another thing that works well for her is to do something that is ally motivating, like talking to a friend who makes her smile or working on a project that she really likes.
When we feel weak
Have you ever noticed there is one part of your body that ‘goes’ first when you’re starting to get sick? In the past, you might have thought that this is just the inevitable progression of getting sick but since we have started to heed our “check engine lights” better, we realized that this doesn’t have to be the case! Now, when we notice our immune systems are starting to weaken, we take action. In fact, now we know that if we pay attention to our ‘warning lights,’ we can avoid multiple days of truly being sick (and not being able to accomplish anything) later. What does this look like?
For Dani, she usually notices that her neck or eyes start to feel sore first, eventually leading into an overall body ache, and then the common cold. She will amp up her citrus intake, drink more water, and make sure not to miss her daily multivitamin. She will also make sure to get the sleep she needs and be more forgiving if she doesn’t check off every item on her to-do list.
For Claudia, when she starts to feel a tickle in her throat or her body starts to feel heavy, she knows it is time to take action. Her first line of attack is simple—rest and eat well. In addition, she will make sure to get her vitamins (through food, if possible). Finally, although it sounds counter-intuitive, she might do some light exercise to keep her body moving, oftentimes helping her sweat out whatever she is feeling.
When we 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, personally, we find the opposite can be better for us. This holds true especially now, when you might find that your sadness or loneliness is not connected to something that is under your control. This is because it can feel like an extra strain on yourself to “try to be okay” around others when you really just want to feel sad and don’t know how to explain why you feel down. That is why we take different actions now when we feel sad.
For Dani, instead of trying to be more social, she tries to take some time alone to disconnect from the world and avoid her phone and/or social media accounts (letting people who may need to reach her know what the situation is). She will allow herself time to lay under the covers on the couch and watch countless high school-themed Netflix movies. For her, this is a time to drink lots of tea and eat warm meals of her favorite comfort foods. Most importantly, she doesn’t give any power to thoughts of productivity or pangs of guilt.
For Claudia, feeling sad elicits one of two responses depending on the type of sadness or loneliness she is feeling. She either goes into her own world a bit more, disconnecting from social media, etc., and spends time reading or drawing. If this isn’t working for her, she might read out to a loved one or someone who she knows can make her smile for a video chat.
When we feel unhealthy
In complete contrast to the comfort food-remedies mentioned above, on other days we know we need to eat healthy! We are not extreme about this but, instead, try to find loving ways to incorporate more healthy things into our everyday routines. Generally, for us, starting with lower-impact changes provide noticeable enough results in the way our bodies feel. This means we are then more motivated to make bigger changes.
For Dani, she will make healthier lifestyle choices seem fun by researching new recipes on the internet before doing grocery shopping. On non-quarantine days, she enjoys going with her husband or a friend to check out a local produce market to see what inspires her. And, while she does not go to the gym often, she loves using her FitBit Versa to track her steps and will use this to motivate her to walk (even just up and down the stairs), often while listening to an upbeat podcast.
For Claudia, she appreciates the ups and downs of being healthy and doesn’t beat herself up about any choices she makes. She doesn’t ever pressure herself to act in a more healthy way but, instead, tries to enjoy the moments before going back to normal. However, if she wants to be more healthy, she does it gently, usually by cooking foods that feel good or doing light exercise like yoga or walking.
When we can’t get motivated
We find it really frustrating when we know we have so much going on and so many things that should be accomplished but we cannot get our minds to focus (or “switch to the right gear” if we want to keep up with this car analogy). However, we have found that when you are constantly checking the clock because you are worried about deadlines, it doesn’t help the situation either. This is because you are less likely to step away from your tasks and, therefore, will feel overwhelmed without feeling very motivated. We have found that actually stepping away from all the tasks at hand can be the most motivating (and productive thing to do). And we are currently working on how we create space for ourselves to be able to do that.
For Dani, this usually means that she will literally set an alarm for half an hour’s time, then put her phone on silent and shut down her computer while she does some journaling, reading, coloring, and/or listening to a feel-good podcast or the client sessions section of Jess Lively’s CSCHOOL course. Yoga, going for a walk, or exercise could be substituted if she has more time, but these lower-energy activities are usually what do the trick for her and allow her mind to wander away from worry, eventually returning to her tasks with newfound zeal.
For Claudia, her first action is to take a break. It is important for her to stand up and maybe move a bit (dancing, for example, to upbeat music works well). In addition, she might decide to work on something creative that is unrelated to the task at hand or try to meditate it out. Sometimes movement works well for her and she will close whatever she is doing and go for a walk or do some stretching. Other times, the opposite it true and she sets her alarm for 25 minutes and takes a nap before trying to work on the project again. Finally, if she is really unmotivated, she lets it be and disconnects for the day—after all, there is always tomorrow.
There are so many different kinds of “check engine lights” that our bodies try to warn us with. We feel like we’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 pay attention to these ‘blinking lights’—or maybe, 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.
Allow us to humor you with this analogy just once more because we 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.