Carolyn was coughing uncontrollably.

It started out of nowhere….she hadn’t eaten anything spicy, or had anything to drink. She didn’t have allergies or a cold.

I was really perplexed as to the cause of the coughing until she said, “This happens to me all the time at the most inopportune moments.”

Hmmm…..

I started to get a hunch that the coughing wasn’t related to anything physical but rather something else altogether.

Back up to 2 minutes before the coughing fit: Carolyn and I were talking about her business. I started praising her work and an idea she had to expand on a project she loved.

I had just told her how unique her service was and how well positioned she was to grow her business when she started coughing. The coughing went on for several minutes and really disrupted our conversation.

Had she not mentioned that the coughing happened in uncomfortable situations, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But the fact that she had noticed a pattern associated with the coughing made me want to dig deeper.

So, I asked her to do an exercise with me. I asked her to do some role playing with me.

For the purpose of this exercise, I asked her to be her cough. Not what she as Carolyn thought of her cough, but to actually “be” her cough.

Then I asked her these questions: “What is your purpose? How are you here to help Carolyn? Do you have a message for her?”

What “the cough” said next surprised us both.

“I’m here to help Carolyn let go of her resistance to hearing compliments. She needs to stop doubting herself and start appreciating her accomplishments.”

After speaking those words as “the cough”, Carolyn’s eyes welled up with tears. She shared that her mother had always told her that compliments were bad and unnecessary and led to an inflated ego. As a result, she always felt uncomfortable when someone praised her work. Deep down she never felt like she was good enough because she wasn’t able to really accept the truth in any kind words or compliments she received.

While not everyone has a cough that shows up at weird times, I think all of us experience physical symptoms from time to time that don’t seem to have any identifiable cause. These symptoms have a significance deeper than we may realize initially.

Some patterns that I have seen in my clients and friends (and myself!) include:

  • Losing your voice when going through a break-up.
  • Neck or back pain that shows up on the day you have a commitment you don’t really want to keep, like helping someone move.
  • An illness that forces you to stay home and do nothing, especially when you have been postponing the urge to give yourself a day off because you have too much to do.

I think these patterns show up in our lives for a variety of reasons. The three most common are:

  • We are experiencing an emotion that we don’t want or feel we can’t handle.
  • We are in a situation that is not healthy for us.
  • We have ignored our more subtle warnings from our intuition that we need to change something in our lives.

When physical symptoms show up at an odd or inopportune time, I think it makes sense to stop and ask our bodies if they are trying to help us learn something we haven’t been able to grasp on our own.

The best way I know how to do this is to use a technique that Life Coach Martha Beck described in her book “Finding Your Way In A Wild New World”. This tool is sometimes used to analyze dreams, but it can also be used to figure out perplexing situations or bodily symptoms.

Here are the steps to figuring out what your body is trying to say:

1. Assume the role of the symptom or area of the body that is bothering you.

This can be way harder than it sounds, because most of the time some combination of anger, fear or frustration arises as we try to be the voice of the symptom. But I have found that by really focusing on being the symptom, you let go of the emotions tied to it. Freed from those emotions, you open yourself up to receiving new information and shifting your perspective.

2. As the area of discontent, describe yourself using 3 adjectives.

When you truly take on the role of the symptom or part of the body you are trying to figure out, the answers you come up with during this part might surprise you. For example, I did this exercise with a client who had chronic knee pain. When I asked her to be her knee pain and describe herself in 3 adjectives, one of the words she used was “happy”.

She was shocked that word came out of her mouth. So shocked, it jolted her out of character and she said “What?!?” But we took it at face value and wrote it down for further examination in step #4.

The adjectives you come up with might be bizarre or unexpected. Don’t try to figure them out in the moment. Just write them down to look at with the rest of the information later.

3. Answer the following questions (Note: If your mind is totally blank and you don’t have an answer to a question, skip to the next one.):

  • What is your purpose?
  • How are you here to help <your name>?
  • What is your message for <your name>?

4. Look over your answers from 2 & 3 to examine what (if any) messages stick out.

Every time I have done this exercise with a client or on myself, a specific message or theme has come through loud and clear. Sometimes it’s something that seems fairly obvious, like a message about taking time to attend to your own needs when you are a caregiver for others.

But other messages are more surprising, like the one my client with chronic knee pain got from her knees. When she spent time to reflect on why her knees might be “happy” in the midst of a painful flare-up, she realized that her knees felt happy because she wasn’t ignoring them anymore. She had initially injured herself (badly) after ignoring the symptoms she had when she took up a new sport.

Although she still had knee pain, she was paying attention to the needs of her knees (and her whole body) in a way that she hadn’t done before and the “happy” adjective from her knees indicated to her that she was on the right track toward whole-body healing.

I believe persistent physical symptoms offer us an opportunity to explore a deeper and often hidden meaning beyond the superficial physical aspects of our suffering and learn more about ourselves in the process. These physical symptoms can give us the keys to unlock difficult emotions, identify situations that aren’t healthy for us, and help us reconnect with our intuition to make decisions that are truly best for us.

Have you ever had a symptom that ended up teaching you more about yourself?