The Most Powerful (Overlooked) Tool for Pain Relief
The human brain is POWERFUL.
Is yours working for or against you when it comes to pain and pain relief?
Mine used to work obsessively to my own detriment. Now my mind is one of my most powerful allies, not just for me but all of my clients as well.
This is not to say that often (or always) there isn’t something physical going on too. Of course there is!
What controls the physical body? The brain and nervous system!
And what controls the brain? We do.
Who we are – our beliefs, stress triggers, past traumas (physical or otherwise), fight or flight response, nervous system habits and muscle memory – all of this and far more is entangled and, when pain shows up, can become a mess of reactivity that has almost nothing to do with our current circumstance.
Before you go dismissing this as a bunch of new age hooey, let me ask you…
Have you ever had something happen in your life that was mildly upsetting, and instead of being calm and assessing the reality of your situation you started obsessing with your mind and before you knew it…the situation went from mildly upsetting to a blazing inferno of “this is so f*cked up!”?
I’m pretty sure we’ve all done this, whether in relationships, traffic scenarios or any time we’re confronted by something undesirable. It’s no different when pain shows up.
Pain is upsetting, right? So it’s logical that we would feel alarmed, concerned and start thinking about it. HOW we think about it and WHAT we think about it determines what happens next. (And…what if pain didn’t have to be upsetting? What if we welcomed it as an intelligent message from our body? More on that later).
I let fear control me for 8 years!
I imagine there’s not a single person on this planet that decides consciously “I’m going to let this here fear control me.” We don’t do this on purpose. I certainly wasn’t aware of what was happening to me until I clawed my way out and looked back at myself with a new awareness. And now…
I believe most of what stopped me from running for 8 years and hiking for 6 was a mental construct. Did I have knee pain? Abso-freakin-lutely!
This wasn’t an overnight mental construct and pain helped create it.
This is a condensed version of my story:
I did gymnastics as a kid and then started running as a teenager. The first thing that happened was horrible shin splints while running, but that didn’t stop me. Then my left knee started hurting, but ONLY while running. Meanwhile I’d fallen in love with hiking, which never hurt. So I would run until I had to limp home, then I’d stop running for a few months; then start again, then stop for a few months…until I started to fear that this knee pain would get worse and stop me from hiking (note: my MIND created this fear; I had never once had knee pain while hiking!)
So I stopped running.
Elisha: 0; Elisha’s fearful mind: 1 powerful point towards doom.
My first stop was Yosemite and I set out to hike to the top of Half Dome and back in one day (it’s about 17 miles round trip).
I got a mile or so from the cables when my left knee buckled and took me to the ground with a stabbing pain under my knee cap.
I instantly became terrified…I was 7 miles up one of the steepest hikes I’d ever done, with miles of stairs to go down on a “bad” knee; I had been rushing to complete a 17 mile hike in one day and the sun was setting (I had planned on hiking quickly downhill); I had no headlamp or flashlight, no extra food or water…and no cell phone to call for help. I HAD to get down or I’d be spending a cold night on a mountain by myself.
By the time I got to the bottom I had two “bad” knees. Just walking hurt for days; every step gave me a knife-like pain under the knee caps. I drove by Zion, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon, unable to get out and hike and seriously bummed out…and the thought sank in “maybe I just ruined my knees for good and I’ll never hike again.”
Be mindful of what you believe!
I became so terrified of that pain that I barely tried to hike even a small hill for 6 YEARS!
I believed – with a strange dark conviction – that if I tried to run or hike again I’d experience that same old knee pain. And guess what? Every time I tried, I proved myself right.
So I became a gym rat. Me – lover of wild places, mountains, dirt trails, wind and sunshine – I traded all of that for fluorescent lights and elliptical machines!
The turning point…
When I was introduced to a fascial stretching method while in massage school I suddenly and without knowing why knew I could heal my knees and run again. This was a knowing beyond reason or proof (I had none yet). There’s a story behind this, but I’ll save it for another day.
I had to wait two years, until I moved to Colorado, to put my convictions to the test.
I taught a friend I was living with who also liked to trail run to work on me on the trail, because something told me I needed to retrain my body, brain and fascia to work together while doing the thing that originally caused the pain. This was pure instinct; there was no guidebook for this and no guarantee it would work. I BELIEVED it would work and that is all I needed.
The first time we went running she had to work on me about ten times and my knees hurt for almost the entire 3-4 mile run (she only worked on me if it was a stabbing pain, I ran through all the other kinds). Something felt different though and I was committed!
The second time she only had to work on me about five times and we probably ran 5 miles. The third run I had almost NO pain and she only had to work on me once or twice.
My knees have only hurt on rare occasions since that day.
I’m convinced it was really my mind that needed the most healing, and once I made my mind up that I would run again and hike whatever mountains I wanted…I could.
The moral of this story (for me) is remembering how connected everything is; we can’t separate our minds from our bodies, our nervous system from our fascia, our muscle from joints. It’s ALL connected.
If the brain is KING, then the nervous system is QUEEN.
I believe these two things are the most powerful players in ALL areas of our lives, from relationships and our psychic well being to physical pain and pursuing our dreams. We can use the brain to affect change in the nervous system, and we can use the nervous system to affect changes in the brain (this is my belief). And BOTH of these things have profound consequences for our physical body, for good or ill.
The good news is we can train our brains and nervous systems to work FOR us and our bodies!
3 Steps to Condition Your Mind for an Unstoppable Life:
- Adopt the BELIEFS that anything is possible, everything is figure-outable and pain is a friendly message from your body. Believing means there is zero room for doubt. This is a positive mental construct that could change your life like it did mine and I am here to tell you that this belief is yours to claim fully whenever you decide to. That doesn’t mean it’s easy! It took me 8 YEARS of misery to get there. So start wherever you have to and build up these beliefs. Use my story. Use this story. Find inspiring people who overcame great obstacles and use THEIR story to bolster your belief in the power of the human spirit, mind and body until you start to believe you have the SAME abilities as they do…because you DO!
- Use the above beliefs to control your nervous system when pain does show up. When you believe that pain is a friendly message from your body and everything is figure-outable, then pain is NOT scary! Again, it doesn’t mean this is easy or can happen by snapping your fingers. You may need to give your mind AND body the proof it needs that everything really IS figure-outable AND you’re going to listen to your body’s messages (like me and my knee pain). Which brings us to…
- Start a conversation with your body. Start from a place of gratitude that it’s talking to you. Pain is your body’s way of asking for HELP! Ignoring its messages usually means it has to get LOUDER (aka hurt a lot worse). Learn what your unique body’s fascial habits are, where your restrictions tend to show up and what kind of ‘patterns’ are present.For example: I now know that because I lean on my left leg (and have since a kid), this made me prone to pain somewhere in that left leg, and that’s where the shin splints and knee pain started. I also know (now) that it’s my calf fascia when balled up in knots that is the #1 cause of my knee pain. I know that running tends to tighten up my calves, as will hiking unless I use a hiking technique I’ve adopted to prevent injury (a future post is coming on this!) So if I want happy knees that allow me to run and hike until the day I die, I need to consistently keep my calf fascia spacious and healthy. Knowing all of this allows me not to freak out if I do get twinges of knee pain, and because I’ve already figured this out…I know what I need to do to get myself out of pain (on the trail or at home).Your body has its own unique patterns like mine does. Figure them out and you should be able to stay pain-free and doing what you love for as long as you want.
I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m certainly NOT advocating pushing through pain or ignoring it (attempting mind over matter)! Quite the opposite.
So please listen to your body and if you’re in pain, give your body some help before trying to use your mind when pain shows up again. It’ll be a lot easier to believe that anything is possible when you’ve proven to your body that you’re on its side and won’t ignore its signals anymore.
Oh, and…I got REDEMPTION for myself on Half Dome last year! I’ll save that full story for another day, but the short version is: I wasn’t supposed to make it to the top (I didn’t win my lottery for a permit to the cables). I *had* to get to the top though, and I did. It was a glorious day hiking 18 miles by myself, the cables were fun and standing on the top was a moment I’ll never forget. And though I had some knee pain the last 2-3 miles I was grinning from ear to ear and not a shred of fear existed for me.
I want to hear from you! Do you have any experiences using the power of your mind to stay calm, curious and at peace in the middle of something potentially upsetting? If not…what do you think of this idea and using it where pain is concerned?