Pain avoidance is the number one form of motivation for humans (or was it number two, second to public speaking avoidance)? Whatever its rank, I’ve learnt that pain avoidance means not just doing things to get rid of pain, but also ignoring the constant messages that our body is sending us. As a physical therapist who works with human biomechanics and the stories around pain, it always astonishes me how much we are willing to discredit these amazing systems we are lucky to have at our disposal. We ignore early warning signs from our bodies, proclaim hate for certain parts, then finally erupt in desperation when things don’t go our way – “Oh, I’m in so much pain!” This was me for years, with the pain in my left arse cheek screaming at me: “KID, THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG!” But I hero-ed through until my left leg just stopped working one day…
Thank goodness I’m on a wiser path now, courtesy of some stunning mentors who approach the body less as bosses and more as educated observers. Zooming in and zooming out, taking things out of the box and considering why things haven’t gotten better, or stopped getting better with the standard approach. And most importantly, asking the question: Why is the problem targeting only my left side and not my right? Some wonderful conversations like this are open to you on podcasts such as Like Mind Like Body.
These lessons, which moved me to a more loving and aligned place, with less fear of my own body, have naturally resulted in greater effectiveness of treatments with the people I help. This is the path I’d like for you also. You don’t need a degree, just a shift in your thinking. So turn your curiosity button on, pop your body blame aside and give these ideas a whirl in the context of your story.
- Discomfort with a lens of context. How do you phrase conversations about discomfort or injury in your body? Do you separate your responsibility as the owner of this magnificent vessel? Is it with concern that you address the sore neck or knee, or rather with disdain and inconvenience and a tone of abandonment? Or do you have lots of conversations with other people about the situation, but never convert this to meaningful action? If we consider the language we bring to the conversations we have with our body, how are you limiting its capacity to heal, simply by ignoring what it’s saying? This body, which has served you so well without question, deserves friendly engagement. Consider reframing your questions to: “Hey body, what do you need from me? Is this organ pain, is this lack of movement, is this stress?” It’s also always helpful to ask yourself: “Would I talk to someone else's body like that?”
- Reflect on the past. Hitch a ride on a time machine to review the movie of your life and audit what has influenced your body. How were you born? What injuries have you incurred from day dot to now (yes, sprained ankles count)? What has been taken out of you or put into you? How many hours did you skateboard with one leg doing all the pushing? As Gary Ward (musculoskeletal guru) says: “You are, today, the sum of all the physical experiences which have taken place in your everyday life.” It pays to consider the injuries and movement habits that remain in your body and might be in need of a shake-up to put the rest of you more at ease.
- Personal accountability and curiosity. Where pain occurs is often NOT where the problem lies. Now that you remember you fell out of a tree when you were 14 years old and broke your coccyx, you can ramp up the curiosity. Take this information to your physical therapist and engage in the partnership: “Do you reckon this could make a difference in my left plantar fasciitis?” If they say no, consider another physical therapist (wink face). Your unique story, mechanics and history definitely need to be on the table. This means that what works for person A and person B will not always be successful for person YOU. As Chris Sritharan
(Yoda-like physical therapist) explains: “Some people choose to move away from the problem [discomfort/injury site] and some people choose to move over top of the problem. It’s not just the mechanics; it’s the way the individual has chosen to use their mechanics.”
- Forgiveness and alignment. What shapes do you often make that have served you for one function, but you have trouble moving out of that shape to its opposite? Pay attention and deep respect to your body's ability to realign itself when dealing with pain or injury. What may have started as a really important compensation appropriate for survival (i.e. moving your weight off your sprained ankle so you can still get around) then shifts to the opposite hip, or all the way up to the neck YEARS later! Now I can forgive my neck or hip and thank it for unweighting my ankle in its time of need.
- Trauma matters. Like our joint alignment, our emotional experience lives on a spectrum. All joints need the opportunity to regularly change shape in their full range, in harmony with their coordinated partners from head to toe. Emotional experiences live on a conceptually similar spectrum: we can function with emotional pain that we carry around and ignore or manage, but how does it manifest in our tolerance and concentration capacity and personality? In the enlightening book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk reconnects the brain and body in the imprint of trauma. In the space of emotional trauma, the brain ‘enlists’ old injury sites or an ache of defensive body postures to communicate, with physical pain, that the trauma is being reencountered/triggered/relived. In my case, at the one family event I allow myself per year, my left arse cheek starts aching, even when it's been fine for months. Over time, this can lead to further malalignment and emotional hurt, or a powerful internal alarm to seek out and use emotional safety strategies. As Kolk writes: “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
If you’re interested in learning more and starting this shift in alignment with your body, I’d love you to try a simple practice in mindfulness and befriending your body; I call it ‘Three Things’. Pause and tell yourself three things you see, then three things you hear, then three things you feel (these can be feelings or sensations). Then repeat with only two things, then finally one thing. If you can remember to do this two to three times a day, I can promise you a natural conversation will start happening with your body – creating greater opportunities for accountability and giving your body more of what it needs.
Become conscious. Date your body. Discover its likes and dislikes. Understand its history. Be self-aware. To learn more, I recommend checking out online access program Wake Your Body Up by Gary Ward.
If we play this game of respecting our body, approaching it with curiosity and a sprinkle of ‘craziness’ (aka talking to ourselves), we get the opportunity to consider why we’re still doing the same thing without the intended outcome. When we become conscious of our body and stop punishing it, we’re able to become ‘unstuck’ and start befriending it. You’ve been you for such a long time, you’re more the expert of your body than you realise.
Who is Unna Goldsworthy?
Unna is an exercise physiologist concerned with questions like “But why?” and “What will work for you?” Long-time enlightened to the idea that the creativity and passion of this industry finds opportunities for the majority of bodies to move, but most commonly the minds attached to those bodies are distracted or stuck, blocking the action to participate in healthy choices. She believes moments of success in health are found in knowing yourself and your patterns, asking for help and not walking the same path three times if it didn’t work the two times before. Can’t go left, go right. XXO