It seems a strange question to ask, that. I mean, mostly we think of brave people as the ones who are willing to undergo pain – soldiers and warriors and Olympic athletes. Generally, we think of people who avoid pain as the ones who are playing it safe, avoiding risk, keeping to the sidelines in life.
I say that ain’t so. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be pain free, especially if you’ve got a limiting condition like back, neck or shoulder pain, or piriformis syndrome or any number of other painful conditions, keeping you imprisoned in your own body.
You might scoff at this idea. How hard can it be to be pain free? Isn’t that what people with pain want? To make it go away? Ah, yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that, you see.
Our identities are wrapped up in our bodies as much as they are in our minds. When you have a limiting and painful condition, it quickly becomes a part of who you are. If you’re the guy with the knee pain, you’re not the guy who plays basketball at lunch. If the knee pain goes away, you now have a lot more options. Your sense of identity has switched.
Likewise, emotions live in our bodies. Crazy and new-age as that sounds, it’s pretty much common sense. For example, think of something that’s stressing you out, like an upcoming visit from your in-laws. Notice how your arms and shoulders get all tense? Yeah, that’s stress and worry building up in your body.
Sometimes so much stress and worry builds up without us letting it go that we become attached to those feelings as a part of our personal identity. When they’re gone and we have nothing left to worry about, we feel displaced and lost. Who am I if I am not this ball of stress and worry?
It seems overly simplistic, but remember that our emotional centers are run by the ancient “reptilian” part of our brain that functions on feeling and instinct, not the more logical and linear neo-cortex. We have all kinds of emotional associations built up throughout our lives that aren’t logical in the slightest, but your reptilian brain doesn’t care.
When you start to ease pain, it means things are changing. Your movement patterns are changing, your energy is changing, you have more options available to you and you probably have made some lifestyle shifts. This only computes in your reptilian brain as things are changing – change is not good – we’ve stayed alive this long with this kind of pattern and any kind of change could mean death! (Your reptilian brain is concerned only with keeping you alive)
So, if being pain-free means fighting against an ancient part of your inner self, what are you to do? In my experience, the slower the change happens, the more lasting it seems to be. Sudden changes shock the system and send you running back to what you’re used to. Aim for a shift of about 5% improvement per week. This is enough to show noticeable improvement without overwhelming your entire system.
Second, create structure. If pain has kept you on the sidelines for a long time, make scheduled times for fitness throughout your week. Don’t leave it up to spontaneity; you’ll either go all out and overdo it or miss your movement sessions completely. Also, having scheduled times for movement lets that silly reptilian brain know that exercise is coming up so it’s not such a surprise.
These seem like simple shifts to make, but believe me, I’ve seen clients suddenly become pain free only to stop all continuing treatment and go back to their old selves. The behavior isn’t conscious, it’s self preservation from that ancient brain trying to keep you on the straight and narrow. Accommodating your reptilian brain could be the difference between successfully conquering your aching body and living with pain for the rest of your life.
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