Can Being a Superwoman Make You Sick?Vivian Kulaga, PHD December 26, 2020
A few years ago, I took part in a discussion with around fifty yoga experts, instructors, studio owners and a few physiatrists (sports medicine doctors) at the healing yoga and movement studio at 80 Gladstone in Toronto. We had all gathered to share our experiences with yoga, and in particular yoga injuries.
I myself have been practising and teaching yoga for over 14 years, and I too had suffered several acute and wear-and-tear injuries along the way. As the discussion deepened, I noticed a common theme running through it – one that I’ve been noticing with my clients too. And that is: Much of the illness and injury that we experience in modern times can be directly attributed to our disconnection from our bodies, a disconnection that in fact modern society helps to foster.
As a pain relief expert and health toxicologist, I work in private practice with people who suffer from chronic pain and illness, as well as high levels of stress and anxiety. My clients are what I would call ‘superwomen’. I have some ‘supermen’ too, but more often than not, the chronic pain and illness conditions tend to affect women more than men. My superwomen clients are all highly intelligent, creative, talented, hard-working, detail-oriented, high-achieving, often successful professionals – many even with high athletic ability, or special artistic ability. They have achieved a lot in life and are constantly striving for more. However, by the time they arrive in my office, they’re not so productive anymore, and are even sometimes disabled due to their pain, illness, or anxiety and emotional distress.
During the discussion, I listened to the yoga teachers and enthusiasts recount the stories of their own injuries and how they had pushed themselves to the point of injury because of an overzealous instructor, or a desire to fit in with other students, or because of a personal quest for perfection.
As I listened, it became obvious that they were sounding a lot like my clients that were presenting with terrible stress and illness in my practise.
The Fatal Flaw of Superwomen
Q: What do the yogis and my clients have in common?
A: Both the yogis and my clients have a tendency to put a higher priority on external cues and pressures rather than on listening to their own internal cues and inner voice. In fact, many were so disconnected from their bodies that they had lost the intimate knowledge of what that even means.
During the yoga discussion, it became obvious that listening to our bodies’ subtle cues in a sensitive, compassionate, and loving way, is the key to avoiding injury. The yogis shared stories about how they became more injured the harder they pushed and the more they ignored their own internal signs. They often got hurt when relying on external feedback from teachers or peers instead of doing simply what felt right.
Also, yogis who were hardest on themselves, or had the most ‘perfectionist’ tendencies, or ‘type A’ personalities, often got the most injured. Similarly, many of my clients who suffer the most, share the same driven personalities. They are hard on themselves, expect too much of themselves, and are often self-proclaimed striving perfectionists. They are superwomen who do an extraordinary job, but whatever they do is never good enough – at least not for themselves.
The Stress Connection to Illness
As a society we are conditioned to give a higher priority to external cues such as pressure from work, school, family, peers or partners. Over time this loud noise of what we are “supposed to do” drowns out the teeny tiny internal voice that actually knows what is best for us. It is often the neglect of this internal voice and cues telling us that we need to take it easy, take a breather, or avoid a harmful situation, that can help pile on stress. Such stress, combined with factors in our environment and our genetics, is often the catalyst for why people develop severe illness and chronic pain conditions – the straw that “breaks the camel’s back,” so to speak.
Women in particular are more vulnerable to developing illness and chronic pain for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, women’s brains are biologically set up differently than men’s, making them more vulnerable to some of the emotional aspects of stress. This can contribute to the onset of illness as well as the magnitude and severity of pain and pain perception.
There is also scientific evidence to suggest that women are more often ‘people pleasers’ than men; from infancy they are more responsive to other people’s facial expressions and therefore strive more to create favourable facial expressions in others. They also often have difficulty tolerating ‘flat’ (negative) facial expressions. This biological difference alone can help explain why so many women push themselves so hard to be superwomen, making themselves sick in the process.
Women also struggle with the historical and biological heritage of having been traditionally responsible for many of the tasks at home, particularly child-rearing, while also dealing with the demands of modern society and having a career. This combined pressure also helps to make women more vulnerable to the ill effects of stress.
Driven to Succeed – At the Expense of Our Health
Modern society has fostered our disconnection from our bodies that can lead to injury and illness. Emphasis on academic achievement, monetary gain, and exponential demands in work productivity have created a fast-paced society that leaves little time for relaxation and self-reflection. As external pressures to produce and perform begin to mount from school-age, climbing in adulthood, and skyrocketing through middle age, we lose touch with the intimate connection we once had with our bodies during childhood. We find no time to reconnect.
Our bodies always tell us when something is wrong if we learn how to listen. Much like in a yoga class, if you were to pay great attention to each of your movements – what feels good, what feels bad – and to the early warning signs of pain, you could avoid most, if not all, injuries. Our bodies are equipped with great intuition and wonderful early warning signs of injury, stress, and illness. However, we have been conditioned to ignore these subtle internal cues so much that many people are at a loss to even know how to try.
It is critical to re-establish the connection between our minds and our bodies in order to live healthy, be free from pain and disease, avoid injury, and recover from illness. You can start to regain this connection through practices that slow the mind and help gain awareness of the body and its physical state.
Meditation, mindfulness, self-hypnosis and hypnotherapy are all excellent tools to help accomplish this and some of the key tools I use in my practice. They help to slow down the mind, create awareness, and develop healthier brain habits, thought-patterns, moods, and even physiological changes for healing.
Many superwomen have a lot of things on the go and feel the mounting pressure as they struggle to complete all their tasks to perfection. Like the yogi who needs to slow down and pay close attention to their body to avoid injury, the superwoman needs to slow down and connect with her body and listen to what it really needs. It is important not to miss those vital cues and early warning signs. For those already ill, it is equally important to reconnect and use the body’s wisdom to help with healing and recovery.
In today’s fast-paced society it is important, now more than ever, to not lose sight of the invaluable connection between body and mind that exists regardless of our awareness of it. Careful attention to it can help steer us clear from pain, illness, and injury, and also help to put us on the road to healing, recovery and well-being.
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Vivian Kulaga, PhD, is a Holistic Health and Wellness Expert and Psychological Trauma Recovery Specialist who teaches and works with groups and individual clients to provide relief from chronic pain, emotional trauma, and chronic stress, and to build happier, healthier, fulfilling lives. For more information please visit her website at: <a href="https://emdrviv.com/">emdrviv.com</a>