We are all told these days that we should be ‘listening to our bodies’ and what is usually meant by that is that we should become aware of the signals our bodies give us when we are under stress or over tired.
The idea is that when you are not giving a voice to how you are feeling inside – your body will find some way of expressing your distress: indigestion, insomnia, breaking out in a rash… etc
Over the last 24 hours Bob the dog has demonstrated this principle admirably.
On Saturday afternoon Matt left the house to be away for two days. Bobby was not impressed. At 8pm, after supper, a time of day when he usually enjoys a post supper snuggle with a preferred human being, he suddenly realised his MOST preferred human being (Matt) was not there.
He’d been sitting on my lap at the moment this realisation struck him. Suddenly his left front paw came up in the air and without warning he yowled and howled like a baby for a full two minutes.
This ‘I’m in acute pain – do something’ performance precipitated a full investigation.
Had he sat on a pin? No.
Had he caught a claw in my clothes? No.
Had he spontaneously dislocated his shoulder? No!
The very worst that could have happened was a possible sudden cramp but I assure you there was nothing whatsoever wrong with the front left paw. Nevertheless, he began to limp and he kept up this performance all evening. We were suspicious but also sure he’d have forgotten about it in the morning.
Not a bit of it. On Sunday morning, instead of the usual rapturously bouncy greeting when I appear at the kitchen door, he looked up at me from his bed as if to say ‘Oh it’s you, do I have to get up?‘ He sighed heavily, heaved himself onto his feet and limped tragically across the kitchen. Tail low, ears sagging and looking utterly pathetic.
He kept up this performance ALL day. As I said, it was a Sunday so with the recently qualified veterinarian surgeon being the boy the who’d just left home (and the one who’d caused all this upset), I’d be darned if I was going to pay to take him to see a vet I’d have to pay. So convincing, however, was Bob’s performance that David even carried him out into the garden just so he could pee (the dog that is). The rest of the day he spent in his bed, looking miserable.
See for yourself, I coaxed him to ‘limp’ on film but you have wait 20 seconds while he stalls and only moves when ‘encouraged’
Sad or what? I promise you there was NOTHING wrong with him. Nothing physical anyway.
But only half an hour after I took that footage. Grandma arrived at the house. Now Grandma is one of his very favourite human beings. (Not like the boring old pair of humans who live here all the time, put down his food, take him for walks and PAY THE VET BILLS!!!)
Anyway Grandma’s arrival effects a miracle – the poorly front leg is completely forgotten, he is instantaneously healed and she is treated to the full bounce/jump/wiggle with joy and ‘let me fetch my rag for you’ routine.
What a con artist! I can’t decide if he is very clever (after all he had enjoyed 24 hours of solicitous patting and would turn on the full ‘tragic head flung over my shoulder and pretend to die’ routine everytime I picked him up) or very stupid.
Or are we the stupid ones for believing him? Not that he had me fooled this time because this is not the first time a psychological upset has been expressed as a physical ailment. It’s always the front left paw and it’s not an ailment, it’s is a protest by a being who has no word in his head for ‘sad’ and only his body to express emotion (primarily via his tail). Something was wrong in Bobby’s world and this is his only way of expressing it. The first time he did this I rushed him to the Vet’s whereupon he instantly improved (because he likes going to the vets), boy was that ever embarrassing. The second time I comforted him with pieces of roast chicken and he decided that perhaps life was okay after all.
I read recently that it’s been estimated that for as many as 70% of people visiting their GPs with physical ailments, the cause has emotional or spiritual roots and I am inclined to believe it. Much more inclined than I would have been five years ago, now that I have intermittently suffered from teeth pain, facial pain and tinnitus, all of which have been investigated and none of which have been revealed to have a physical cause.
‘It’s all in your mind‘ is sometimes said dismissively, as if to say ‘get over it, it’s nothing’ but actually the realisation that the root of your problem lies between your ears ie in your thinking and stress patterns doesn’t make the problem any less serious or the symptoms any less real. Nor does it necessarily make you any more able to do anything about it. But at least identifying that the cause is not physical can open you up to alternative ways of working out what is wrong with your world and can help you take steps to rectify it.
Hurt, disappointment, loss, transitions, change of any kind (good or bad), misunderstandings, pressure of work – if you can tick more than a few on this list and also have an ‘unexplained’ physical symptom, you may not need to look much further to explain it. Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that serious and clearly physical life threatening diseases are brought on by our own emotional or mental vulnerability nor that we should ignore physical symptoms and just put them down to stress without investigation. But neither should we underestimate the power of the connection between our brain (what we think and believe) our heart (what we feel) and our body.
It seems that Bobby might still have a thing or two to teach me.
PS I have just started reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein It is a story written by a dog called Enzo but as he begins writing on the eve of his death I haven’t yet got further than three pages without needing tissues. I’ll let you know if I manage to read on