National Eating Disorders Association

What Does it Mean to “Listen to Your Body?”

Kaitlin Irwin

If you’ve ever tried to practice self-care, then you’ve probably come across the advice to “listen to your body.” What exactly does that even mean, though? Is it when my fiancé and I listen to each other’s tummies and laugh at the noises of gas bubbles and digestive enzymes? Maybe it’s obeying the voice in my head that says, “Screw work and go to sleep instead; you’re tired.” 

Or perhaps it is being aware of my natural hunger cues so that I know when I’m physically hungry and when I’m full. The truth is, I think that “listening to your body” involves several different facets of self-care, some of which are easier said than done.

I remember when I was in treatment for anorexia; I had to fill out post-meal worksheets about my dinner experience. On a scale of 1 to 10, how physically full did I feel? What emotions were going through my mind after eating? Did I feel disgusted, satisfied, accomplished, scared…? After the worksheet, I then spent about 30 minutes speaking with my therapy group about the meal, what I liked about it, what I didn’t like, and how I felt before, during and after the whole thing. It was an exercise in listening to my body as well as my mind.

This is where it gets tricky, because the body-mind connection is so important and elusive at the same time. At least for me, it can sometimes be difficult to separate my physical hunger from my emotional hunger. Developing this skill was crucial to my recovery, but even people who haven’t struggled with an eating disorder can benefit from reading the physical and the emotional cues. It took me what seemed like forever to be able to have natural hunger cues and to feel what true physical hunger felt like, because I was on a meal plan that regimented my food intake for me. 

When I was finally able to eat “intuitively,” I felt an overwhelming sensation of both liberation and fear. Would I be able to know when I was truly hungry? Would I know when to stop eating? How much food was too much, and how much was too little? It took months for me to get comfortable and familiar with my own body, but now I am able to know when my body is asking for food, when it is satiated and when I need to go back for another helping. I also had to learn that physical hunger and its cues are different for everyone. Depending on age, activity level and so many other factors, a person may need more food than someone else and that’s perfectly fine! Trust me; once I stopped comparing my food intake and my physical hunger with that of others, it was incredible.

Moreover, listening to your body is not just about food. Our bodies can help us when it comes to exercise and rest, too. I maintain a regular exercise routine, but I’m also at the point now where if my body is extremely exhausted, sick or hurting, I can take a break. Compulsive exercise was a huge part of my disordered life, but I have since learned to listen and be aware of my body’s cues to help me determine if I’m doing too much. On the other hand, sometimes my body will ask for more physical activity; exercise can make me feel great! It’s just important to remember that every day is going to be different. Your body is not a machine, and that’s why we need to listen to it.

As it turns out, our bodies are quite intelligent. There were many times when my disordered mind would tell me to restrict calories and exercise for hours. If I had listened to my body, I would have realized that I was extremely worn out, exhausted and practically starving. It’s a tough place to be when your mind and your body are at odds with each other. Listening to my body took patience, attention and dedication, but when I truly listened, I realized that my body wanted to be my friend, not my enemy.

Kaitlin Irwin is recovering from anorexia. She spent her college years struggling to hide her illness and hopes to use her love of creative expression to spread positivity and love to others.