A New Year Deserves New Stories


From the Healing Bridge Physical Therapy

January 2009 Wellness Notes

By Allison Suran PT, GCFP


As I listen to my patients, I am struck by their stories. Not just the story of how they got injured, or how this mysterious pain has been growing over the past months or years, but the underlying revelations: The little words or phrases that reveal how they really feel about their condition. Words are powerful. One new year’s resolution that can make some subtle, if not profound changes in your life, is to choose your words more carefully.

“My back is full of arthritis.”

“I have bulging discs.”

“I played too hard when I was younger and now I guess I’m paying for it.”

“My Dad had back pain and so do my siblings, so it’s just how we’re built.”

“I’ve had past surgeries, so I’ll never fully be the same.”

While these statements may hold some truth, the message behind them doesn’t have to be true. Many people believe that the conditions they are describing automatically EQUALS pain and that nothing can really be done about them.

In truth, there are millions of people functioning on the planet today, pain-free, who have arthritis, bulging discs, scoliosis, had very active younger and current lifestyles, and parents who ended up in pain. The difference may be that these functioning folks have not been convinced that there is any reason they should have pain. They are not telling themselves over and over, in their mini-mental stories, that they are somehow going to “pay for this.”

Each time you hear yourself in your head or out-loud, comment about your condition in a way that implies, “and therefore I’m stuck with this pain,” you have triggered a stress response. Your brain goes to work tightening muscles to protect you, releasing stress hormones, making your breath shallow, inhibiting your small stabilizer muscles so your large fight or flight muscles can be ready for action, and generally interfering with your optimal health and healing. If you are struggling with on-going pain, the pain may be a reminder of what you cannot do, and will actually prompt you to tell your mini-mental story multiple times a day (and maybe multiple times per hour), thus contributing to more stress responses.

So, what’s a person in pain to do?

Change the story. The first challenge is to let yourself genuinely hear the language and emotional tone you use to talk about your condition(s). This can be difficult because what you say and how you say it is so “normal” to you, and can seem so harmless. Habits tend to be that way, unless they are the big cultural “bad” habits that everyone knows you “shouldn’t do”. (ie; smoking, eating sweets, drinking, etc). If you have a good friend or family member who can lovingly point out to you how you use your words to negatively express your health condition, this can be very helpful. It can also make you feel vulnerable, so be specific about whom you choose to help guide and support you in this self-awareness journey.

Once you’ve begun to identify how the words and phrases you are choosing may be contributing to the pain response it is time to begin to shift how you express these concerns. Often there is a lot of fear and concern about one’s condition. If this fear gets disregarded, the next steps may be futile. So before moving forward with “positive thinking”, it is important to find a way to calm and soothe any fears and concerns. A qualified coach or counselor may be useful for this since not everyone is well trained to help guide you to a place of support for your feelings. This isn’t a time for finding what’s wrong and then scolding or shaming yourself for being so “stupid”, indeed, that will end up being more mini-mental stories that create the stress response.

As you learn to create a safe environment to support yourself and your deeper fears, concerns, worries, etc, you can also begin finding new truths that support your healing. Here are just a few suggestions:

1 Find things you truly like and appreciate about your body and your health and make a practice of appreciating these on a daily basis.

2 As you go to bed, before you fall asleep, you can recall your day and all of the moments your body and health were “there” for you.

3 During exercise (or movement through your house, or shopping), feel the support of your feet, the healthy expansion of your lungs and ribs, the swinging of your arms, the dexterity of your hands and fingers.

4 Give your body gratitude. When you awake in the morning, take a few moments to look in the mirror and thank the different parts of your body for all of the functions that they do so well. From your muscles and joints, to your skin, to your organs – your heart, lungs, kidneys, bladder, etc.

5 Change the stories:

• “I know I have arthritis, but as I do my exercises, work on my posture, and strengthening my muscles, I’m glad to know the arthritis doesn’t have to hurt (as much) and interfere with my life.”

• “I’m so glad about what I’m learning. It’s exciting to know that I will be the one to change the family pattern of low back pain and poor posture.”

• “This pain sure seems like a pain, but I know it’s helping me learn things about myself that I would have just ignored and missed out on.”

• “Lot’s of people have my condition and do not have pain”.

6 Are you reinforcing a victim story? Really listen to your feelings and words. Do you feel your pain is in control of you? It’s time to take back control, and the first step may be some positive self-reinforcement, encouragement, and hope.

There are many other types of mini-mental stories that contribute to our stress responses. It could be how you talk about money and finances, the economy, being overwhelmed with too much to do, family relationships, or any number of things. These stories can contribute to your physical pain, and or your mental/emotional pain. Why not take the first steps to change by choosing your words and thoughts more consciously? Let more peace and joy filter into your life.

May you enjoy a happy and healthy New Year with new truths to guide you.