“Are you under a lot of stress?” The orthopedist, Dr. W, clipped my X-Rays into the illuminator, shielding their results from that morning’s hard sunlight.
“Stress? I don’t know. Maybe a little….” I trailed, unable to piece together what I had to be stressed about, other than the fact that my cervical spine was curving in the wrong direction and I’d had a migraine headache for three weeks straight.
“Are you an anxious person?” he asked, and I felt my heart bottom out. What was supposed to be a doctor’s visit now felt like a coup, destroying all evidence of the work I’d done to free myself from the anxiety and depression that had framed half of my life. Sure, I was still in the process of trading in my fears for faith, but I no longer vacillated between a state of all-consuming panic and a sense of being frozen in time. By my own definition of “anxious,” I’d evolved to become far from it.
“Umm, I guess I can get anxious,” I admitted, more to myself than to the doctor.
“Well, some of the strain in your neck is probably from weightlifting, as well as other things you do in your daily life, but stress can definitely make it a lot worse,” Dr. W explained. “Continue with your physiotherapist, and I’ll give you some anti-inflammatories. I can also prescribe something for the anxiety…”
“For the anxiety? Like what?”
“Valium!?!” I shrieked. “No, I don’t do that.”
After years of washing down its generic counterpart, Diazepam, with cheap “fine” wine, Dr. W’s prescription was akin to suggesting that I start drinking again, thereby canceling out a half decade of sobriety. In my work, I’d preached putting one’s mind into one’s muscles at least a hundred times, but could my mind be wreaking havoc on my muscles as well?
Apparently, yes. And intuitively, I already knew this- shortly before my doctor’s visit, I’d even done some reading for a few of my clients on the “emotional muscle” - the psoas- otherwise known as “the muscle of the soul.” But, it was a tough connection for my own brain to make- to accept that the stressors I’d been experiencing in my life may have manifested as one thick swath of pain the stretched across my trapezius, my cranium, my eyeballs.
Studies show that the more stressed people are, the more constricted their muscles become. And, if depression or post-traumatic stress disorder are present, it only adds to the issue, increasing the risk of chronic pain. If that’s not enough, recent research indicates that different muscle groups clearly respond to negative emotions; for instance, when fear is perceived, the trapezius muscle responds in kind.
As I exited the hospital that day, I took stock of what had been going on in my life lately- something I hadn’t slowed down to do for quite some time. A regular meditator, I realized that those precious minutes in the morning had lately been squeezed out due to other commitments. I’d also skimped on praying and journaling, and I hadn’t been spending much time with friends. In short, I wasn’t doing all of the things that I know I need to do in order to keep my life in balance; I’d deprioritized myself. Does this sound familiar to anyone? I’m guessing it must, because it’s an issue that comes up all the time in my coaching practice.
So, what do you do when your Orthopedist prescribes Valium? Well, I’m sure a great many people would run to the pharmacy to get that prescription filled! But, popping Valium is probably not the best solution, especially if your lifestyle and emotional health have been out of sync for a while.
Here’s what you can do instead if you’ve fallen off the self-care rails and your physical body’s rebelling:
- Accept that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of others. Consider the “emergency in-flight” analogy. Flight attendants always tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others with theirs. Well, what happens if you decide to put the other person first instead? When you put yourself first, everyone benefits.
- Write. Furiously. Get out a pen and some paper, shut the door, and write whatever comes into your heart. Try not to censor yourself at all- just let it flow. You may find that you’re holding in all kinds of toxic junk. I used to do “Morning Pages” for years- an exercise from “The Artist’s Way.” This is a practice where every morning, as soon as you wake up, you write three full free flowing pages to purge all the mental crap that’s been collected and set the intentions for the day. Use a pen- not the computer. Longhand has added benefits to the brain.
- Practice PNR- Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This is a technique that involves tensing specific muscle groups for a few seconds to gain greater awareness of tension you may be holding while learning how to bring relaxation into the area. Here’s how you do it:
- Find a comfortable position, either sitting in a chair or lying down in a quiet room with your eyes closed.
- Gently focus on your breathing, acknowledging and releasing any thoughts that come into your mind.
- Tense each muscle group, beginning with your forehead. Hold the tension of each muscle group for 5 seconds as tightly as you can. Then, release and relax. Muscle groups-> forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks, lips, jaw, neck, shoulders, upper arms, forearms, hands, abdomen, back, hips, glutes, thighs, calves, feet, toes.
- Take a critical self-care day. Turn off your cell phone. Shut down your computer. Put away your “to do” list. Get a massage. Lounge around at your favorite café. Read a good book in bed. Go to a yoga class. Spend some time with animals. Take a walk in the woods. Go swimming in the ocean. Get a facial, and a manicure. Go for a bike ride. Take a rose petal bath. Lie in a field and stare up at the sky. Go fishing. Do a guided meditation. Get your hair done. Bake something healthy and yummy. Stretch. Do a crossword puzzle. Play a board game with a friend. Sew. Knit. Take a boxing or karate class. Do WHATEVER you want to do which allows you to relax and which puts no pressure on you whatsoever. If that means doing nothing at all, then do that. This is your time. No explanations. No expectations.
- Pare it down and say NO NO NO. Many of us are truly taking on too much these days. We’re plugged in constantly while striving toward superhuman standards and ideals. This constant endeavoring, people pleasing, scrambling and volunteering can take an incredible toll on one’s physical and mental health over an extended period. Here’s an exercise: take a sheet of paper and write down every single thing that takes up your time. Use the timeline of a month- where is your energy going to? Then, ruthlessly cut down your list by a full 30%. Force yourself to remove a full 30% of whatever is taking up your time and write the remaining items on a new list. If you absolutely, positively cannot get rid of 30%, it’s time to delegate. Who- or what- can handle what you’re no longer willing to? Maybe that means building amore efficient system, or hiring a virtual assistant, or delegating childcare. Then, as hard as it may be at first, practice saying “No”, to anything that isn’t very important, or that doesn’t make your heart sing. If it’s not on your new list, it’s a “No.”
I’m not just doling out advice- this is what I’ve been working on since seeing Dr. W and so far, so good. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been challenging- handing over some of my workload to an assistant was really uncomfortable for me and spending more hours on relaxation-related practices like morning pages has not been smooth sailing by any means, but my physical well-being is important enough to me to make the change.