In the absence of fear

Half HandstandFor many years, pain and fear were my constant state of being. I had a slew of athletic injuries to my ankles, knees, hips and spine that never healed. Once I injured a joint, it became this weak link, flaring up with debilitating pain, even years after the initial injury and despite constant physical therapy. There were full weeks in high school when I had to crawl up the stairs because I couldn’t walk them. Just as suddenly as the pain came on, it would pass and I’d be back to functioning until the next flareup happened. By the time that I was in college, the pain was matched with fear. I saw how other people injured themselves and the injuries healed in a way that mine never did. I was terrified that I was witnessing the rapid and irreversible decrepitude of my body and didn’t believe that I’d be walking by the time that I was thirty.

Of course, the pain and dysfunction had little to do with my athletic injuries and everything to do with undiagnosed Lyme Disease.

Over the past years of treatment, I always prioritized regaining mental clarity over limiting pain so it wasn’t until I was several years into treatment that I could begin to pick up the pieces of my athletic past and begin to train again. Still, because my body was so very depleted, I had to be very watchful of how hard and long I trained, to prevent myself from collapsing for days afterward. Healing from Lyme has required incredible internal balance and a constant willingness to learn the subtle rhythms of my body.

Here I am, a full twelve years after diagnosis and it was only at my yoga class last week that I moved without fear for the first time. Only in its absence did I recognize the extent that that fear has limited movement: uncaged, I could explore the full expression each asana. For once, I didn’t cradle my ankles when seated, I didn’t hold myself back or move gingerly, a full beat behind the rest of the class in every motion, anticipating pain and trying to work within a limited range of motion to mitigate it.

Pain is your body in conversation with you

Pain can be scary. It’s uncomfortable and also indicative of something not right in the body but when it has no obvious source—not a burn nor a fall nor an accident, but just shows up, seemingly out of nowhere, and lingers, it can trigger fear and anxiety, interrupt sleep and make it harder to cope with let alone heal. Especially if you don’t know what to do to fix it.

 PJ-BB600_HEALTH_G_20110704185119I am no stranger to the downward spiral of pain creating fear and anxiety and disrupting my sleep. It begins with pain, becomes more pain and then fear that my body is disintegrating shows up followed by anxiety: am I injuring my body more? The fear and anxiety, I’ve noticed, usually cause the pain to intensify and spread. Lyme is a really painful disease. There were weeks when I couldn’t even walk for the pain in my knees and days when I couldn’t do anything but lay on my back for the spinal pain. At the time, I never knew what set the pain off and, until I was diagnosed with Lyme, no doc or PT I saw could figure out its cause either. The joint pain was so rough that it felt like, just by using my joints, I was contributing to their deterioration. For a dancer and athlete, this was a heartbreaking thought. I gave up so many activities I loved by the time I was twenty and just hoped that I would still be able to walk when I was thirty.

These days, my joints are stable, move fluidly and never even ache but I fully understand what so many of my clients are going through when they come to me because of pain and fear or with anxiety about “What is happening to my body?!”

When pain comes from a straight forward injury, it’s easy to understand and, as tough as it is to deal with it, you have a pretty good sense that the body will heal and the pain will pass. When pain comes from layers of muscular imbalance, skeletal misalignment, compensatory patterns, and inflammation, it can be hard to get to understand the root of it and hard to see an end in sight.

I try to disarm people first. By which I mean, to get them to unload the emotions around pain. We immediately jump to evaluating whatever state we are in: if we’re happy, that’s good. If we’re sad, that’s bad. If we’re in pain, that’s bad. What if, I ask my clients, you could just experience the pain? It is simply a sensation and assigning a negative judgment to it makes it worse. Uncomfortable, yes. Scary, possibly. But bad? No.

In fact, pain is an incredibly useful tool. It is your body in conversation with you. This hurts, it is saying, stop what you are doing because it’s not good for your health and survival. Pain if you touch your hand to a fire–you can see the immediate need to pull your hand away so you don’t burn it off, but pain in the low back from a lifetime of sitting isn’t necessarily as clear a direction. Pain will get you to stop and take a look around and see what isn’t working in your life, where you’re forcing yourself through situations that are hurting your body and make changes. The real trick is, do you stop and listen when your body speaks up? Are you learning how to listen to your body? It is yours, and you’ll be with it your whole life. If you listen now, you’ll be in better shape in the long run.