I was going to start this article with some stats that would show you just how bad chronic pain and the opioid epidemic has gotten. Stats like one hundred million Americans and 1.5 billion in the world at-large suffer from chronic pain. Or in 2016, 11.5 million people in the U.S. misused prescription opioids and over 42,000 died of an overdose (see what I did there?).
But our brains struggle to make much meaning out of such large numbers. So I’ll tell a brief story about one of my clients. Mr. R has had unrelenting back pain for 18 years since he was involved in a car accident. Multiple surgeries, implanted neural stimulation devices, and numerous physical therapists and chiropractors haven’t fixed his pain. In fact, he feels it has gotten worse.
So he started using pain medication, OxyContin, upon the insistence of his physician. [So ingrained are the use of opioids in our culture that when I typed oxycontin into Word, spell-check changed it to the brand-name spelling!] Within one year of taking this medication he was out of work, feels disconnected from his young children, and struggles to juggle his responsibilities because he has trouble remembering what he’s supposed to be doing. He doesn’t know where his body is in space, feels unable to relax. And his pain? It continued to worsen.
Most people, like Mr. R., are taking these potent medications with the hopes that it will reduce their pain and make life more livable. But I think that our society’s predilection for prescribing, and taking, opioids speaks to a deeper truth: the pain of unmet needs.
I think it's time to change the way rehabilitation is delivered. People who are chronically stressed and in pain aren't suffering from a diagnosis of "not enough aspirin" or "not enough flexibility". They are fundamentally threatened and insecure in their own bodies which manifests in physical symptoms.
Most of what we learn in school is completely irrelevant and many times actually gets in the way of true growth. The deepest learning comes from trial and error…and I’ve made many, many errors.
I turned 30 over the weekend so I thought I’d share a few lessons I’ve learned along the way, none of which I learned in school.
I have been working with a particular middle-aged woman for some time now. We'll call her Brenda. She has been suffering from poor digestive health, multiple sclerosis, and unrelenting back pain for more than 7 years now. Always on edge, she feels categorically unable to relax her body, especially her back.
Upon my asking, she felt the last time she was able to feel fully relaxed was when she was just 8 years old, playing with her stuffed animals in her room. She had some trauma with her parents around that age that persisted for years afterwards and she hasn't been able to feel relaxed since. Imagine living 45 years and never feeling relaxed in your own body.
I remember my first experience working with someone with trauma. She was a middle-aged woman with back pain who was quite rigid and despite us just meeting had mentioned a few negative-sounding comments about her husband. I didn't think much of it as a new clinician but some bells went off when I went to palpate her abdomen and she got very defensive despite giving me permission to do so. I felt completely unprepared to help her deal with this at the time.
Subsequent patients came and went and they had the same vibe of behaving in a self-preserving way, some more aggressive than others. Many, when they did volunteer information, described difficult childhoods. Unsurprisingly, they now presented to me with physical pain, tension, and chronic stress.
Compulsive thinking is a terrible human affliction. Rumination is the tendency towards repetitive thought, typically negative. Not only is this a great way to be more depressed (and is predictive of a new onset of depression), it’s also a great way to lock yourself up physically as those who have tendencies toward rumination also have higher resting cortisol levels. And if you are chronically stressed, you are chronically tense - they are two sides of the same coin.
I felt compelled to write this. Every day I work with people who desperately want to get better. They want to move more easily, live without pain, and be more productive and happier. Most of them believe that the fix is to do some exercises, get stronger, and go back to how things were. And perhaps that works for a few. But we must realize that we cannot have a conversation about what exercises to do or even what is wrong with the body without understanding that prolonged stress pulls at our every fiber and is the cornerstone of the bad stuff in your life.
Isn’t it always a paradox when you hear someone say, “Just relax” as if it’s a conscious decision the person is making to be tensed and keyed up. Like “yeah the thing I want most in the world is to be stressing out right now”.
Read on to understand a connection between our perceptions, stress, and movement and how you can get first dibs on my fully-downloadable audio course: Movement Meditations.
Hello! It's been awhile since I've posted on the blog but that doesn't mean I haven't been busy. Read on to discover:
I find the denial of human impact on climate change to be an interesting example at how we recognize and respond to threat as a humans.
From an evolutionary standpoint, we have selected for traits that allow for immediate survival: quickly perceiving the whites of enemies' eyes and teeth, toxic or rancid smells, or running from tigers. We developed the ability to quickly change our physiology to survive and/or pass on our genes. All in the name of getting out of dodge in the short-term...