When Shanti was little, we tried to train ourselves: Scold in a whisper (much easier for Charles than for me), and celebrate her successes like we were partying on New Years Eve. How often we praised her and recognized what she was doing right was important, but just as important was how big a dose we delivered.
It wasn’t just about the frequency of our interactions, it was about the intensity.
If we were scared – if that parental panic inside was flagging us down like the robot in Lost in Space screaming “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” – we’d let out a yelp that made everyone within earshot freeze and stop breathing for a minute. That’s a big dose. Alright, so you’re thinking it’s a pretty good thing to stop danger in its tracks. But what about the other kinds of fears and anxieties we communicate to our kids? And, what about our anger? When it’s anger you’re delivering, even a little dose goes a really long way. Are the doses of the healthy stuff big enough to outweigh it?
This week something jangled me. Took me out of my nice comfort zone and had me sweating and a bit tremulous actually. Let’s just say an old clerical error that I didn’t even know about, but with financial consequences, came back to haunt me. Not exactly the IRS, but just as bad. Coughing up the payment was painful but brief. What jangled me was the worry, the fear of the unknown. “If I didn’t know about this, what else is lurking out there?” Several hours of the “what if’s” later, and after trying – and failing – to find relief with a bunch of my usual centering techniques, I finally asked myself: “How big a dose of this fear am I willing to take?”
And after careful consideration, I decided that I’d already had a sufficient dose, thank you very much, and it was time to get on with life as I enjoy it. In this case, the dose was self-administered and I’d had enough.
So I thought I’d share my experience, maybe inspire you to consider – not only about what emotions you’re dosing yourself with – Fear? Anger? Joy? Love? Appreciation? – but also how big a dose you’re taking. When it’s self-administered you’re the only one who can decide. I think some thoughts should come with warning labels.
I work with many people who have chronic back pain and we talk a lot about avoiding pain triggers – no twisting, no heavy lifting, use good body mechanics. Recently, one of my clients told me that he had to avoid triggers of his mind. He was talking about how he avoids depression and stays clean despite his physical pain. And he’s been very successful.
So how do you avoid triggers of your mind? You can take a few lessons from your back.
- Don’t reach while you’re standing on a ladder. Always start where you are, and pick the fruit that’s within reach. Don’t try to stretch to the inaccessible just because you see something you want over there. Move the ladder if you have to – meaning you find a new approach. Or find a new tree. But don’t overreach. If you do, you’ll either get frustrated or have a fall.
- Wear good shoes. I talk to so many people who’ve gone for all kinds of back care – physical therapy, massage, trigger point injections, you name it – only to discover that the problem wasn’t really in their back. They were walking funny, and the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone and the ankle bone’s connected to the knee bone and the knee bone’s connected to the hip bone and the….well, you get the idea. A little foot problem can throw the whole shebang out of whack. When it comes to your mind, it’s a matter of checking out what you are standing on – What’s important to you? What meaning have you found? In other words – what’s your foundation? Does it keep you in a healthy alignment? Or do you need a new pair of shoes?
- Pay attention to what you’re doing. Some of the biggest acute pain episodes I see happen when people just do things without thinking. They’re off in their minds somewhere while their body is doing something else until – WHAM! You can’t avoid triggers if you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. You have to be present. You have to be bring your awareness to the present moment and make choices about what you can and can’t do. You have to define some healthy boundaries.
- Intervene when the pain is small. Another good reason to be fully present. You’ve got to be paying attention to how you feel to be able to notice pain when it’s still small. Then, you’ve got to be willing to interrupt what you’re doing and make some changes before the pain gets so bad that whatever it is you’re doing screeches to an abrupt halt and puts you into spasms. And it’s much easier to change direction when the momentum is small.
- Get distracted. It’s a paradox, I know, but getting distracted and paying attention can work together. It’s called focus. Getting distracted isn’t the same as ignoring pain or pretending it’s not there. And it’s not numbness. Getting distracted is making a conscious choice about where you want to put your attention. You choose to focus on what feels better. One of the most effective strategies for coping with pain – in your back or in your head – is to put your attention on something else.
- Don’t push through the pain. There are teachers and coaches who will tell you to “push through the wall”. We know some of them. We’ve studied with some of them. But we don’t agree with them. Pain is a signal. Your body (or mind) is flashing a red light, yelling “STOP!” If you try to push through back pain, you make it worse – much worse. You do more damage. It’s no different with your mind. If your mind is screaming “PAIN!” don’t keep pushing yourself down that same line of thinking. You don’t undo pain by causing yourself more pain. And if your mind is screaming “FEAR!” maybe it’s because you’re not ready to do whatever it is you fear. It doesn’t mean you should stop there, immobilized. But we don’t believe it means you should just “push through the wall.” Fear can signal two things – REAL DANGER! or the need for more preparation. Listen to which of these it is.
- Pace yourself. This goes a long with “don’t push through the pain.” Don’t keep pushing when what you need to do is pull. Have a balance in your life. Make sure you’re having some fun. Take time for relaxation. It really puts things into perspective – Let’s you step back from whatever is troubling you and just give it a rest.
- Get a good night’s sleep. If you don’t allow yourself enough time to sleep – or if you’re not sleeping well – your pain will seem worse than it really is because you’re more sensitive to it. So skip the midnight snack. Quit falling asleep in front of the TV and just go to bed.
- Don’t go there. Ever see those wide black elastic belts for back support? They actually have long vertical “spines” in them, called “bones,” that poke you in the ribs if you try to bend too far. If a thought hurts, don’t let your mind go there.
- Use support. Those elastic belts also give support where your muscles may be lacking. To avoid triggers of the mind, it helps to have support. Somebody to remind you (and maybe even give you a gentle poke) if you’re going too far in the wrong direction and give you a little extra strength until you build up your muscles.
Anyone who has lived in chronic pain knows – you either find a way to live with it and manage it, or it controls your life. It’s a choice that has to be made every day. You may have to exercise self-management moment by moment, but when you do, the pain yields.
And when all the strategies you use to cope become habits that serve you without any conscious effort on your part, you’ve begun to adapt – to learn a new way of living. The pain may still be there, but it’s not who you are. It has no power over you. It may even disappear.