Toughing it out? Please don’t.

Every week, I meet dozens of people who tell me that they have pain. When I ask what they’re doing for it a common response is, “Nothing. I figure it will get better so I’m toughing it out.”

PLEASE DON’T. The longer we stay in pain, the more vehemently the brain sends pain signals to the point where it can’t remember how to do anything else. Acute, short-term pain becomes chronic. Here’s what happens:

Pain is a neurological response to an unexpected event/sensation. The unexpected event can be caused by any number of things, ranging from a sudden injury (comes on quickly), exhausted/stressed muscles from overuse (builds over time) or even the reawakening of a past physical or emotional trauma (remains quiet until triggered.)

Pain is the brain’s cry for help. Generally speaking, we respond in one of three ways:

  1. We create safety right away and the brain goes back to normal processing.
    For example, when we stub our toe on a chair leg, the brain sends a pain signal to tell us we just experienced blunt force trauma. In most instances, we stop briefly to make sure we’re OK (perhaps with an expletive) and then continue on with our day. What we don’t do is continue to slam our toe into the chair. The pain subsides because we haven’t given our brain a reason to keep sending pain signals.
  2. We ignore the pain and the body screams louder, for a longer period of time.
    This is where the “toughing it out” behavior is rampant. Perhaps I notice that my shoulder hurts when I reach overhead. I like to go to a yoga class that includes a lot of Sun Salutations and I continue to reach overhead even though it hurts every time. One day, I wake up and I can barely lift my arm. Maybe that gets my attention, so I ice it and take ibuprofen and it starts to feel better. So, I go back to the same class and then the pain increases again. Same behavior, same result.
  3. We ignore the pain and the brain disconnects from the area and puts its attention on something else.
    This shows up in a few ways. The affected area doesn’t hurt in the same way and we believe the injury is gone (it’s not.) We lose flexibility or mobility in the affected area and other muscles jump in to do the job of the dysfunctional muscles. When muscles try to do a job that’s not theirs, they get overtaxed. The brain recognizes an unusual pattern starting to form and sends pain signals to the helper muscles. (Have you ever hurt your shoulder and then wonder why your other shoulder hurts?)

New response idea: Somatic Yoga Therapy
Somatic Yoga Therapy is a compassionate (not forceful) and efficient (working directly with the pain source) way to help the brain and muscles relearn how to function well.

Truth: My approach as a Somatic Yoga Therapist is very different than what you’ve heard in the world of Western medicine or in the fitness industry. Also truth: I know Somatic Yoga therapy works. I’ve seen it over and over again.

The first time I meet with a client, we look for the source of the pain which, most often, isn’t the area that hurts. For example, tight hips (source) can show up as knee pain (helper muscles.) Tight back muscles (source) can show up as headaches (helper muscles in the neck.) Tight shoulders (source) can show up as low back pain (helper muscles.) The client learns to approach our practice as a Soma (“living body”), which helps them sense and feel the physical body from the inside out. Most clients are surprised at what they can find by slowing down and being quiet. Their internal sensations and my external assessment brings us to the true source of muscular dysfunction. Then, we use a series of slow, small movements of hips, shoulders and spine to reeducate the brain and muscles on how to work together efficiently. The result is increased mobility and decreased pain.

My friend, Troy, told me years ago, “If you listen to your body’s whispers, you’ll never have to hear its screams.” I couldn’t agree more. Somatic Yoga helps us find hidden areas of muscle dysfunction which we then treat gently to guide them toward freedom. There’s absolutely no toughing it out. And, because we’re creating and strengthening neuromuscular competence, the results can last longer.

Is your pain new? Come see me before it gets worse. Has your pain been with you for a while? Stop toughing it out. Even if you believe you can’t feel better, I encourage you not to give up:

Studies show that understanding how pain is created and maintained by the nervous system can significantly lessen the pain we experience.  Steve Haines has written a lovely little graphic book, “Pain is Really Strange,” that does a great job of teaching us about pain in a way that I found easy to read and to understand. I recommend you check it out.

And, let’s explore which somatic yoga therapy components are right for you. 

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