I just returned from a weekend with one of my favorite teachers. It was a beautiful weekend and I came back refreshed and renewed.
I have been wanting to talk for a while about how to combine different aspects of wellness (physical, mental/emotional and spiritual) into one article.
So today is the day.
Most of us learned early on in our life how to interpret pain.
People routinely talk about having a high threshold for pain, but what they really mean is they are able to deal with pain differently than others.
Science proves them right.
We all have almost the exact same threshold for pain.
The threshold for pain is that particular point when the nerve root is triggered and an impulse is sent to the brain for interpretation. For almost everyone, this point is identical. What is different from person to person is the emotional response to this impulse.
Pain is defined as "the emotional response to a noxious stimulus" with the noxious stimulus being the nerve being fired from stimulation. So our emotional status determines how we interpret pain.
A lot of us are taught to "block out" the pain or "ignore" the pain.
This habit continues into our adult life.
For most children, the body's reaction to pain is a learned behavior. Although there is confusion and distress until we give it a name or determine the importance, it doesn't really matter.
For example, when I was 8 I was riding my bicycle over a small jump that my brother and I had built.
My handlebars were loose and I had removed the padding long before this event, so when I landed the bars came down forcefully onto my knee and took a large chunk of skin off my leg.
When I looked down at my leg, I saw this white tissue with little red dots and I was pretty calm.
Sure, there was a sensation there, but I had not yet decided if it was good or bad.
Then my brother came up saw the cut, slapped his hand across my eyes and screamed, "Don't look."
Now fear set in and pain became the sensation I felt in my leg.
When his fear and anxiety hit me, I immediately determined that there was a problem so I screamed and carried on like a fool.
As my life progressed, I had other experiences that helped me shape what I called pain.
When I tell this story, often at this point patients want to assure me that they are in fact feeling pain.
By the way, I am not doubting that you really hurt. In fact, I believe you 100 percent.
It is not my place nor my ability to feel your pain, nor am I interested in experiencing your pain I have my own pain.
Let me get very specific.
The impulse traveling to your brain is just that an impulse. How you interpret that impulse determines how you feel.
When you are stressed, your emotional state is off balance and you feel more intense pain.
When you are calm, your pain levels decrease.
Notice I did not say that your pain disappears, I said that it decreases the more calm you are inside. I am also not talking about a pretend kind of calm like when on the outside everything is fine but on the inside you are a train wreck.
I mean that a genuine inner calm results in less pain.
So the emotional side of dealing with pain shapes how you interpret a purely physical response from the body.
Often we consider the pain a curse and we want to fight it or change it, but really what we should be doing is meeting it and allowing it.
The resistance inside is where your emotional stress comes to play and influences your body's ability to heal.
Let's really be honest right now- we don't do anything to heal our body. The best we can do is get out of our body's way and let it do what it was designed to doheal itself.
To me, it is like saying that you help your heart beat. First of all, your heart beats without your help, in fact your heart beats even when you abuse it, just like our body heals even when we treat it poorly.
If our life depended on our ability to make sure our hearts were beating we would all be in trouble, so thank God it is one thing we don't have to worry about.
And similarly thank God we don't have to worry about making sure our body heals.
Similarly, when we provide the right environment our body does things without our interference. The best we can do is allow our body to do its job.
This is why my little slogan "go to the pain, not through the pain" is the best advice I can give.
In a culture that trains us to ignore or overlook the signals our body gives, it is important to be honest with ourselves and see if what we are doing is really promoting our wellness. So many patients confess to pushing through things because "they have to get done."
Even though it is not being totally honest with what they really need. Our body is screaming please stop and our mind is ignoring it and we just keep right on pushing ourselves despite how lousy it makes us feel.
I have a friend who was just in a car accident. She hurt so much that she simply couldn't do all the things that "had" to get done and she was forced to pay attention to her physical body.
This is where wellness joins the spiritual with the physical and emotional/psychological.
Taking the time to stop.
Taking the time to really be honest about what matters. Taking the time to feel the body and see what lessons it can offer us is the road to wellness.
Physical pain often comes so that we are stopped. It is not that we deserve it or that we are to be blamed for it. The event is neutral, just like the impulse our nerve carries is neutral. How we interpret the event determines its value and its importance.
This is why I often say that pain is a gift. So often we ignore our life situation the same way we ignore pain. Even though we need to make a change, we block out or suppress the subtle messages that change is needed. But when physical pain becomes so intense it simply stops us in our tracks, then we have an opportunity to evaluate our life.
We get several chances to stop our life. Everyone has had the experience that a tragic event comes and all the things we thought were so important lose their importance. Learning to pay attention to the clues before something dramatic happens is a lot simpler but often more challenging.
A patient this morning was performing a stretch to help her back, and despite the fact it wasn't helping, she forced herself to stay in the position.
As I worked with her, I guided her to let go, to stop trying so hard and to just let her body find the right position. As she did, her pain decreased and with time her pain resolved fully.
My McKenzie training taught me that the patient has all the answers and it is my job to learn from them what their particular body needed. We are all different and require different steps to lead us to wellness.
So with this patient, I talked her through trusting her body.
I reminded her that pain was the body's "language' and that to discover the freedom from the pain, she had to learn that language or at least find an interpreter to help her understand what her body was telling her.
She was trying to make her body get well, which is like trying to get a deaf person to understand by yelling louder and louder.
A deaf person can't hear you no matter how loud you scream.
So if you are struggling to feel good again and you are getting more and more frustrated, it is only because you are unable to communicate with your body.
You are misunderstanding what it is telling you or you are rushing it, wanting it to fix itself immediately.
What you need is a translator.
That's what my staff and I do all day, translate what your body says into a program that guides you back to yourself. Then because this language is your native language, all that is required is to allow yourself to hear what your body is saying to you.
This is the spiritual connection.
Physical and emotional struggles are simple misunderstanding and miscommunications. Sometimes it is impatience, expecting an immediate result on something our body requires weeks or months to accomplish.
Sometimes having a translator to open up the conversation is all it takes.
We know the languages already we were born with the ability to speak it.
Deeper than that, we all know this language but have ignored it for so long that we struggle to understand its meaning.
Because we spent a lifetime focusing on a different language, we are a bit rusty in the beginning. We are familiar with the language and as soon as we remember we find wellness.
This is the gift that pain has to offer us. We get closer to that balance that our life continues to strive towards. It most definitely is worth the effort because when we remember this language, the harmony of our actions creates a flow in our life. This flow requires minimal effort.
This is wellness.
So take the opportunity to listen to what your life is saying to you. Chronic pain has a gift in it. Back pain has a gift to give you.
Emotional stress has a gift to give you. The events of your life are necessary to help you find wellness. Everybody's life is unique to them and yours is just the right combination of ingredients to guide you to being well.
Matthew Goodemote, a Gloversville native, owns Community Physical Therapy & Wellness. His Health & Wellness column will answer your questions and discuss topics that are relevant to your everyday way of life. If you would like to ask a question, e-mail Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org.