Imagine walking across a narrow, one-foot-wide plank on the floor of your living room. Knowing that any misstep will allow you to safely step onto the floor in the comfort of your own home, how stressed would you be to perform this task? Would you be physically tense or anxious if you raised the board half a foot? Probably not much, six inches is pretty manageable. You still have some options.
But what if you raised it fifteen feet?
Walking the Plank
Or put the plank outside in an unfamiliar setting in front of your neighbors? Or put the plank across Niagara Falls?
Most would be paralyzed with anxiety at even a few feet of elevation, unable to think clearly or move freely. Even though the physical act of walking across the plank is the same regardless of its height, the way you move is very different.1 This is because you are perceiving fewer and fewer options or alternatives, less room for error.
What are we without the ability to choose, without options? Are we fully human? Although too much choice is often problematic (#firstworldproblems), in general we are less stressed when we feel we have a choice in the matter, some semblance of control.2 Without alternatives we are buried in reactivity. And the more stressed one gets the more reactive they become.
If someone you know is tense, painful, or just not performing as they would like, ask if they have a choice in the matter. Could they do things differently if they wanted to, or are they locked up? Anxiety and physical tension are often the manifestations of being in a reactive state that is deprived of choice.
Most of my clients are stuck. They often feel as if they cannot move, or be, any other way so they behave accordingly — we move and act according to our self-image, after all.3 Being without movement options is problematic in that our brain perceives the body and its tissues as potentially compromised. This perception institutes a reactive response that I've discussed previously, and often includes pain, anxiety, and muscular tension. They are walking the figurative plank every day, unable to adapt their movements to the demands of the environment.4
But what if we can reframe our perceptions and make more movements feel like walking on a board across the floor, instead of across a waterfall? Well then we start to understand that we have some options.
Creating More Options
Are your movements reversible?
Ever go down the stairs and expect the next step to be there and it's not? Or had a chair pulled out from under you when you go to sit down? You have experienced what it's like to not have reversibility. The intentional part of your brain has been shut off and left you at the point of no return - you can't reverse it - and it doesn't feel good.5
Intentional movements are largely reversible, meaning you can "go back the way you came". If you can stop a movement in the middle and reverse it without a loss of control you possess the capacity for a higher level of movement skill because you have alternative ways of moving. You aren't painted into a corner.
Parkour, obstacle courses, and other sports of this nature are excellent examples of having movement options. Because of the precarious nature of their sport they often don't know what lies beyond their next leap. So parkour athletes have to move with intent and awareness which helps them avoid the position of no return and potentially injury. In other words, they are moving with options.
I like having options, alternative lives unlived but always possible.
If you find yourself plopping down into chairs or heaving yourself out of bed in the morning, practice reversibility. See if you can stop moving in one direction and go back the way you came without losing control. Slow down. Pay attention. Don't give away 99% of your movements to unconscious habits that are inefficient and laborious. Exert a higher level of conscious control in your life.
Having the perception and freedom of choice isn't just limited to the mental realm, it solves movement problems too.
1. Credit for this "walking the plank" idea came from The Elusive Obvious by Moshe Feldenkrais.
2. Sapolsky discusses the feeling of control reducing stress in his book oft-cited here: Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. Both of these books are part of my Recommended Reading List.
3. Looking at just the literature on chronic low back pain, it is apparent that there is a loss of variability, evidenced here, here, and here. Whilst pain is clearly implicated in these studies, I wonder if we would see this same physical reduction in movement variability with stress and that pain is simply a particularly salient cue that the system may be in danger.
4. This is likely forged thru stress and the capturing of behaviors:
"It is possible that high levels of dopamine release in corticobasal ganglia circuits during stress serve to capture whatever successful behaviour has just rescued subjects from danger and engrain this pattern as a habit. But this same evolutionary solution could make humans vulnerable to maladaptive behaviors when an inappropriate behavioral pattern is ‘captured’ by high dopamine levels." Arnstern, 2009.
5. This "position of no return" is cited often in the ACL injury literature and is a perfect example of moving uncontrolled into positions from which we cannot recover. Literally, the only option is to tear one's ACL.