Healthy Choices with Liza Baker: Green light, speed bump, stop sign

Our modern lives are full of demands on our time and energy: they hurtle toward us 24/7 in surround sound and 3D, whether in the real world or in the virtual one. As a small business owner, a health coach, an author/blogger/podcaster, and the underpaid COO of a family of four currently living on 3 different continents, I’m no stranger to this noise.

Even at times when those two external worlds are relatively silent—usually in the early morning hours or late at night—I often have trouble silencing the inner chatter: there’s today’s (unfinished) to-do list, the I-can’t-believe-I-forgot-to-do list (yes, I really did once forget to pick my child up from school), the what-does-tomorrow-require-me-to-do list … and a deep yearning for just a little rest, a little peace and quiet.

All this has been heightened by the lockdown, which has forced new roles on many of us (teacher, cafeteria lady, hall monitor, sports coach, school nurse…) and brought us into even closer quarters than we’re used to for much of the day.

And yet, finding our internal pause button and using it regularly can be just as important as feeding ourselves the right foods, particularly when we’re in a heightened state of stress.

Green light superpower

When my teenage son started driving, we joked a lot about his green light superpower: stoplights at intersections where it seemed I always had to stop inevitably changed to green when he was in the driver’s seat.

It made my life as the anxious-parent-in-the-passenger-seat much easier (since that brake on the passenger side never seems to work!).

And it made me think about whether this superpower has a dark side. I think it may, for when we sail through every intersection, our busy-ness is just enabled.

Speed bump, stop sign

I live in a residential neighborhood where the 25-mph speed limit is regularly ignored—amazingly, not only by the newly-licensed teens testing their wings, but often by their harried moms in minivans, running late—again.

The homeowners’ association arranged to have speed bumps installed in phases—the longest stretch of road already has them, and perhaps one of these days, phase two will be in place.

I’ve observed that drivers have several reactions to speed bumps: some ignore them in their hurry, some have actually slowed down overall, others speed even more in between them and slow down just to get over them, still others (myself included) tend to avoid that street entirely.

That last group makes me realize that a secondary (unintended?) consequence of installing them might just be a lot fewer cars on the streets of the neighborhood as people who live here find the nearest exit and others choose not to cut through here.

Whichever way we approach speed bumps (or not), in our headlong hurtle toward efficiency and productivity, we’ve become very, very good at avoiding anything that has the potential to slow us down.

Until we hit a stop sign. (Well, to be honest, I see a lot of people who treat even those as optional.)

What does this have to do with health?

More than a year ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Glidden of Joy Ann Arbor, and she said something that has really stuck with me: I asked Heather what were some clues to the fact that our bodies are asking for attention, and instead of giving me a list of what to watch for, she gave a brilliant reply: pay attention to what you’ve stopped doing, and ask yourself why that is.

Our bodies are constantly sending us signals when something is wrong, and because the human body is so adaptable, we normally find a way to compensate for the pain or stiffness or other symptom and continue to ignore (or abuse) our bodies until we hit a full stop, the point at which the body says, “I’m done. You haven’t listened to me, so I’m going to put a stop sign where the speed bump used to be.”

You might be thinking that it would be much more useful to have a checklist, but as a health coach, I love this response: it really asks us to pause and pay attention to what speed bumps we’ve hit and how we’ve dealt with them (or not).

Putting good fuel in our cars is not the only thing that will keep them running—we also need to change the oil, check the fluids, adjust the tire pressure…. What are the equivalents to this in our health?

This month as the lockdown continues, I urge you to take a moment to consider how you’re “driving” your body: do you find you have the green light superpower? And are you using it for good or evil? Are you hitting speed bumps, and how are you dealing with them (or not)? Have you hit a stop sign? And finally, who’s the mechanic who can help you?

WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.