Of course, breaking the "it's no big deal" cycle is more psychologically fraught than it might at first appear. When I asked a friend, who happens to be an immensely smart woman who works many hours a week, raises a child, and multitasks like the rest of us, whether she felt she listened to her body, she replied earnestly, "Oh, yes. I hear it loud and clear—a new ache, the start of a fever—I hear it all, and then I yell at that little inner voice, 'Shut up, shut up, I don't have time to deal with this now!'" Avoidance is a factor Millheiser is well aware of: "This is the opposite of hypochondria," she notes. "Hypochondria is taking normal responses and turning them into symptoms of disease. But avoidance also plays negatively into a healthy awareness of your body, and what I try to stress is perspective. Say, for example, a woman is resisting a test such as a mammogram—she's too busy, it's too painful—I suggest she ask herself, Is this avoidance reasonable; is the test or the bringing of a symptom to a doctor's attention truly worse than the consequences of the potential disease?"
As Andrew Weil, MD, has pointed out for decades, the consequences of not listening to your body are profound: "Unless you learn to notice and be bothered by the early, subtle stages of illness," he warns in Health and Healing, "[you] will find yourself more and more dependent on...the costly interventions of modern hospital medicine." Unfortunately, once you are effectively listening to your body, the next challenge can be getting your doctor to listen as well as you do. Most of us have been brushed off at least once by our doctor: My personal low point was when I mentioned to a leading Manhattan internist that I felt tired all the time, and he looked me up and down and said, "You've put on weight; it's probably that." (I switched doctors shortly thereafter when it dawned on me that he had not wondered why I'd put on weight; an autoimmune condition turned out to be the culprit, and once that was under control, the pounds and exhaustion went away.) Millheiser advises, "If you tell a doctor a problem you're having and he says, 'It's nothing; just change your diet, add a little fiber,' do what you're advised, change your diet, avoid triggers, but if after a week to ten days there's no improvement, you have to go back and say, 'It's not nothing.' If need be, ask for a second opinion. You're not there to please the physician; you're there to stand up for yourself. You have to be the number one advocate for yourself."
Neil Shulman, MD, who uses the term body-illiterate for those, like me, who know less about our body than a good driver knows about her car, sees huge benefits to becoming literate: No other preventive measure would allow us to save more lives in America and prevent more disability than if people knew what their individual red light warning signals were. That's probably the bottom line of why even laggards like me should get in the habit of respecting the doctor inside our own body enough to pay attention—if I don't listen, who will?
Frequent contributor Elaina Richardson splits her time between Saratoga Springs, New York, and New York City.