Even if you don’t want to bother anyone, because it’s more of the same, and people’s patience is bound to give out.
Even if depression is a cliche, even if it’s seasonal, even if you have damn good reason.
Your brain, evolutionarily speaking, DOES have damn good reason for balking, this time of year. Psychologists say that situational depression is the body’s way of conserving energy when continued struggle would be counterproductive. Depression helps the immune system heal wounds and fight infections. And obsessively replaying Life’s Worst Moments in your head (‘rumination,’ for the less blatantly abject) helps you discover what patterns of behavior might be ripe for change.
And there can be a certain joy in wallowing. Because allowing yourself to feel ALL the feels can be the quickest path to moving through the crappy ones.
So if you are full of grief, anxiety, anguish, despair–I see you. Put on the Depression Playlist. Lie face down on the floor. Go to the woods, stare at the sky and weep. Write the words you will burn.
And trust that even in the darkness, you are held.
When I was in my early twenties, a friend of mine started having neurological problems. Intermittent, acute idiopathic pain, fatigue, and intermittent paralysis. Doctors could not find a cause. Some accused them of making it up to get attention.
At the same time, this friend started having flashbacks. Memories, long buried, of repeated sexual abuse by a relative, at a very young age.
They spoke up about the abuse. After some battles, they were even believed. The abuser was prevented from abusing others.
Over time, the neurological problems got worse. Many diagnoses were proffered and rescinded. They spent more and more time in a wheelchair.
The experiences of this friend, and of many others, inspired me to study alternative healing, particularly the relief of chronic pain. Over the years I heard countless variations on this story. Childhood abuse, adult disease and disability.
So when, in 2012, the results of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study were made public, it validated a suspicion of mine. As the study indicated, childhood trauma can disrupt the structural development of the neural network, and the biochemistry of endocrine systems. This can have far-ranging health consequences in adulthood, correlating with everything from heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and emphysema, to behavioral and mental health issues like alcoholism and depression.
Trauma disrupts the nervous system.
If you have been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you might have been able to avoid the avalanche of people telling their sexual assault stories, in the wake of allegations against Harvey Weinstein. After a few days of it, I got off social media.
Because the guys complaining about people expressing their feelings were a little much.
As if feelings aren’t reality.
Feelings, as I understand from decades of professional experience, are data. Feelings are biochemistry. Feelings are a language more truthful, rational and compelling than any amount of intellectual rationalization.
And when I hear the feelings of millions of traumatized people dismissed as so much whining, I get kind of enraged.
It’s that kind of language that keeps abusers comfortable. It’s that kind of talk which keeps victims quiet. And it’s an ontological lie, told in order to maintain a status quo which is monstrously destructive.
Because every human being will experience trauma. It’s built into the system. What causes unnecessary trauma is trying to ignore and suppress the body’s natural response to it. Emotions are tunnels, which we have to traverse in order to build resilience.
I spend my days coaxing people’s bodies to release unprocessed trauma.
And I don’t have much patience with those who try to shut them up.
It strikes me that most exercise videos are excessively earnest. Perky! Sincere! Cheerleader-esque!
There seemed to be few, if any, home workout routines for people with a healthy sense of irony, and a taste for the absurd. My people.
For too long I lacked the time, the equipment, and the chutzpah to make an ass of myself, without losing 30 lbs and an ankle brace or two.
But now–thanks to the unremitting skill and attention of Terry McHugh of NovaCare Physical Therapy, and Dawn of MotherHeart Studio–my chronic knee and ankle injuries are so well-healed that I can skip, sauté and bourreé to the satisfaction of all my kitchen appliances, and the total expense of dignity.
Twenty years ago, a friend of mine stopped being able to walk.
It happened intermittently. She’d be fine for a few weeks or months, then collapse. She had intense pelvic pain that doctors couldn’t find a reason for. Some thought she was faking it and sent her to the psych ward, or gave her a catheter without anesthetic “to teach her a lesson.”
No doctor, as far as I know, asked her if she had a history of childhood abuse.
Then came the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experience study (ACE), a study of 17,000 adults which correlated long-term health outcomes with childhood trauma. It suggested that certain experiences are risk factors for leading causes of illness and death–as well as poor quality of life, including idiopathic pain. Chronic, high-intensity stress in childhood, it seems, can re-engineer your nervous system, and not for the better.
In my bodywork practice, my biggest source of fascination and frustration is “mystery pain,” often accompanied by “mystery fatigue.” I can get a little obsessed. In trying to solve the problem of why a client is in pain, exhausted, dizzy, depressed, anxious, can’t walk properly, or gets “pins and needles” for no apparent reason, I’ve researched not only musculoskeletal problems, such as injuries, arthritis, disc disease, spinal stenosis and spondylitis, but also adrenal fatigue, chronic Lyme, and any nervous system illness we have a name for, including every type of sclerosis that they thought my friend had, and then ruled out.
And I keep going back to the ACE study. All the TED talks and spin-off studies and New Health Initiatives focus on prevention, which is splendid. But what about people whose nervous systems are already kerflucked? Is there any way to help them?
Answer: I don’t know.
We know the nervous system is plastic; it can be rewired, to a certain extent. We know that PTSD is treatable. Could we develop a protocol in cases of idiopathic pain and fatigue syndrome, otherwise known as Nobody Knows Why I’m Kerflucked?
Because the danger in addressing an undiagnosable problem in a holistic way, is that you may be attacking it at the wrong level. You can’t heal a broken leg by changing your mindset. Too many holistic practitioners make claims that aren’t backed up by research. As a colleague noted when she said, “I don’t know any other massage therapists quite like you.”
So I keep asking questions. I keep reading research. And I keep up my attempts to hack into your nervous system, and tell it there’s no cause for alarm.
My brother-in-law, Leif Weaver, passed away on November 14, after an eighteen-month battle with aggressive mantle-cell lymphoma. I loved him a whole lot.
His memorial was filled with friends and family who were just as broken-hearted, many of whom had flown cross-country on a few hours’ notice to say goodbye. We spent the evening swapping hilarious Leif stories, hugging one another and openly weeping. Love was everywhere.
During the course of his illness, I and others close to him experienced a host of sympathetic, stress-induced symptoms. Back spasms, sciatic pain, the onset of MS. Medical treatment could only take us so far. The body and mind have their own methods and timeline for processing trauma, physical and emotional.
In my bodywork practice, I call myself a creative problem-solver. The truth is, a lot of problems can’t be solved. While going through Leif’s illness and passing, I’ve shared the pain of many of my clients who are dealing with similar situations. When someone you love is seriously ill, your mind has to do something with the inevitable feelings of fear and helplessness; often this manifests as intractable pain. As both patient and therapist, sometimes all I can do is acknowledge the pain, treat it with the skills at my disposal, and wait for it to pass.
…the results showed that most of the volunteers had generated significantly greater muscular force while working at the musically equipped machines than the unmodified ones. They also had used less oxygen to generate that force and reported that their exertions had felt less strenuous. Their movements were also more smooth in general, resulting in a steadier flow of music.
Earlier research has already demonstrated that music both inspires workouts and calms the nervous system, improving overall performance. Along with endorphins, it’s a natural pain reliever (as I can attest, having shredded my posterior tibial tendon by running with the assistance of Coldplay.)
But still, most of us treat things like music as incidental–nice to have, when we think about it, but not necessary or integral to our lives.
Music, however, can be a gateway to the state of consciousness known as ‘flow’; when we are so engaged in an activity that our sense of time and identity seems suspended. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes, in ‘Flow: The Secret to Happiness,’ our brains can only process about 110 bits of information per second. When our brains are immersed in a creative activity, there is not enough bandwidth left over for maintaining a sense of individual identity, and all that goes with it–hunger, fatigue, worry, and pain.
I don’t know how many of you experience this, but during my 20+ years as an artist, I routinely use music as a way to jump-start a state of flow. It’s like hopping on a train. The music seems to obviate doubt and paralysis by providing a clear pattern for moving and thinking. My brain is both attending and translating the sounds into a series of creative decisions which leave no room for extraneous sensations. It’s only when the album ends that I notice I’m hungry and have to pee.
How does this happen for you? Do you ever drop your body while you’re working? What about during a massage?
Turns out my crippled ankle wasn’t psychosomatic after all. According to my fabulous new podiatrist, I have posterior tibial tendon dysfunction, caused by the extra bone in my flat, flat foot torquing my gait and stretching the tendon until it is practically shredded. He says if I don’t wear this brace, I’m a candidate for surgical reconstruction of my entire ankle joint when the tendon gives way completely.
It took me awhile to assimilate this information.
Because it’s a lot easier to be the big, strong person who helps OTHER people with their frustrating pain and mobility problems. It is terrifying to admit that I don’t have all the answers, that I can’t fix everything, that most mornings I have a hard time negotiating my way downstairs, because my ankle won’t flex properly. It is hard to ask for help.
On the other hand, it’s great to be running up and down stairs again. A little support in the right place makes all the difference.
And knowing what I know about alignment, I am kicking myself for not recognizing the obvious. I was so focused on how the rest of my body was affecting my ankle, I failed to consider the possibility that the ankle was, in fact, the source of the problem. It’s a wonder my knee and hip and back aren’t completely wrecked; for this, I have yoga and foam rolling to thank.
The moment that mortified me the most was when my podiatrist said EXACTLY THE SAME THING to me that I say to my own clients. “You need to take care of this now, so you’ll be massaging people for longer.” Ouch. I can spend my life telling people that self-care is not a luxury, but am I walking my talk?
It seems to me that the people who give the most to others are often the least willing to give to themselves. Are you one of them? Think about how many people are depending on you, at your job, in your family, in your relationships. If something happened to you–like, say, you stopped being able to climb stairs, or walk more than 30 feet, or started getting regular migraines, or collapsed under intolerable strain–how would this affect them? How does it affect them when you’re exhausted, anxious and in pain? Are you more likely to become impatient, angry or detached?
And if a child of yours were forced to endure the same level of pain, stress and fatigue you put yourself through on a daily basis, would this be okay with you?
It’s impossible to overstate how big an effect your environment has on your nervous system.
Living in urban environments, it’s easy to forget that human beings evolved, literally, in nature. Our nervous systems are attuned to cues that have been in place for millions of years–when to wake up (light gets blue), when to go to sleep (light gets rosy and orangey and fades away), when to run like hell (rustle in the bushes), when to grab your spear and jab it in all directions as frantically as you can, because you are actually being swallowed (light gets very red and black indeed.)
Then, a few hundred thousand years later, inhabitants of the inner city so far forget their roots as to paint their windowless bedrooms like this:
and think that somehow they can avoid the repercussions. (Which, in my observation, usually range from nasty divorces, to arrests for assault and battery, to psychiatric hospitalization.)
This is one of the many reasons that we at Practical Bodywork take our wall colors so very, very seriously.
Our domestic partners may get annoyed with us. “Don’t paint the kitchen, we’ll just have to re-paint it when we move out, like, five years from now.” “We don’t have to hang that rug on the wall before the party, it’s no big deal.” “It’s just a rental, why are you bothering?”
These people may believe that their sense of well-being, productivity and ability to sleep at night does not hinge upon the color of their bedrooms, but these people may be wrong. Most of our nervous system responses are hard-wired and beyond our conscious control. And doing battle with stress-inducing ambient cues, day in and day out, has devastating consequences.
So, forthwith, we provide a primer on How To Choose Your Room Colors.
Step 1: Ask yourself how you want to feel in a particular room.
Nobody ever says to themselves, “I want to feel angry, nervous and depressed when I go into my kitchen.” Instead, their kitchen designer, who always orders take-out, says, “Kitchens should be elegant, timeless, and cave-like. Because our ancestors cooked in caves.”
This is the kind of kitchen that induces you to stick a Stouffer’s in the microwave and scarf it with a chaser of bourbon, because what’s the use?
Your kitchen, ideally, should inspire you to make fabulously creative, scrumptiously healthy meals for the crowd of awesome people who wandered over with a bottle or three of good wine, because it’s just so much fun to hang out there.
But in order to figure out what colors will provide that specific company-and-wine-attracting vibe, you must perform:
Step 2: Honestly analyze the quality of your natural light.
The biggest mistake I see enthusiastic room-painters making, in the upper Northern Hemisphere, is going into denial about how much light they have access to, or thinking that they can fake it.
Let me explain. The closer a person lives to the Equator, the drier the climate, and the higher the altitude, the jollier the colors they can get away with. This is why Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are painted the way they are.
Bright, strong, clear light, coupled with high ceilings, can carry a palette straight out of Romper Room. Nothing ever clashes in direct sunlight. The louder the better. There are walls in Mexico that you can practically see with your eyes closed, so saturated, enveloping and pervasive is the color. It’s not tacky or horrendous in the least.
But when you try to convert your low-ceilinged, north-facing, ground-floor apartment into your own little Buddhist temple, north of the Tropic of Capricorn, nightmares ensue.
General rule of thumb: the higher the ceiling and the larger the windows, the more you can use saturated colors. The lower the ceilings and the foggier your light, the more you have to dust it down.
That doesn’t mean you can’t go bright; it means you must go oblique. You use colors with earthier hues. Dusty rose instead of cotton-candy pink; butternut yellow instead of sunflower. You can get away with almost anything, as long as you mix a good dollop of some phlegmatic neutral into your glowing paint bucket.
Step 3. Don’t try to brighten up a dim room by painting it white, or beige, or pastel.
This is one of the most counter-intuitive principles in space design: white is not bright unless there is a ton of natural light to reflect off it. If you paint your basement apartment pure white in order to stave off a cave-like ambiance, adding a lot of excellent halogen lighting to ensure you don’t get S.A.D., you will merely create the effect of a refrigerated subterranean laboratory. Instead, pick warm, luminous colors in mid-range tones.
Step 4: Don’t be afraid to go personal and eclectic.
Matchy-matchy is tacky-tacky. Show me a room full of furniture that was all purchased at the same time (most likely from the same suburban shopping mall), and I will show you a room without a soul. A soulful room is curated, rather than designed. Before you go running out to buy a lot of stuff, take a good look at the stuff you already own. Do you like it? If not, get rid of it. If so, pick out the stuff you like best–like an Oriental rug, an antique table or a tiled mirror–and choose colors that show it off. Pick one of the tones in your rug and paint the wall with it; match the curtains to one of your tiles. Play around with visual jazz.
And if you have no idea what to do next, drop us a line and we will give you a free consultation!
Like a lot of other practitioners, I tend to suffer from bodyworker machismo. I spend my days treating other people’s pain, and ignoring my own. Which is exactly what I advise my clients not to do.
Recently, I hurt my foot. The technical description of what I did was tearing the plantar fascia on my right heel, after changing my running gait from heel-strike to ball-strike, and then doing yoga with a calf muscle in spasm. But that wasn’t my experience. My experience was that I got out of bed one day and my foot hurt.
So, for your edification and amusement, here are the five stages of Macho Bodyworker Healing.
All I need to do is warm up, give my foot a rubdown, and it will go away. Like, in ten minutes. In a day or two. In a couple of weeks. Don’t mind me, I’m walking very slowly today. I’ll just stop running until this gets better. Dammit.
I can’t afford to get this treated. I know all about plantar fasciitis, from that two-year bout with it I had, a decade ago. It’s not THAT bad. I’ll stay off of it for a weekend, roll my feet, wear my arch supports. Do some self-treatment on my gastrocs and soleus every morning, and evening, and several times during the day. See? All better!
It’s not getting better. I can’t afford to be crippled for two years, again. I can’t afford NOT to get this treated. I’ll call that Rolfer, what was his name? Brian Stern! He’s expensive, but so what? I’m crippled! My body is my livelihood! I have to keep up with two kids in the Franklin Institute! Help!
(Brian Stern is excellent at what he does. He restored considerable articulation to a pair of malformed ankle joints which were rusted stiff. Also, he is warm, approachable and sympathetic. Don’t you hate it when you go to a doctor, in desperate pain, and you get the sense that you are a boring nuisance to said doctor, and to most of his staff? That’s one nice thing about bodyworkers–most of them genuinely like people.)
Okay, that was great. My foot still hurts, though. I’d better do the foam roller every day, twice a day, and some gentle yoga. In fact, I should not skip the yoga even when I stop hurting. Because that’s what started this problem in the first place.
All better! Mostly. I can walk right-left, right-left again, instead of thump-drag, thump-drag. I’ll do the foam roller for another week before I resume running. Meanwhile, I’ll describe this process in excruciating detail on my blog, so that others may learn from my foolish suffering.
What if I told you the Secrets to Stress Management, Time Management, and Improving your Health were all FREE, already exist inside of you, AND are inspired by ancient Eastern wisdom?
Sounds too good to be true, eh?
Then, what if I told you I could teach you these secrets in less than 2 minutes AND you could easily incorporate them into your daily life?
I know! I know! It’s can’t be true!
But it is.
Here are my 3 Quick Tips to Melting Stress, Boosting Energy, and Enjoying the Holidays… so you can Launch Yourself into 2013 with a Spring in your Step and a Solid Foundation for Performing at Your Optimum Level at Work and in Life at Large:
Tip #1: BREATHE! Take a moment now to pause, take 3 deep, easy breaths and allow any tension in your head, shoulders and back to roll off of you and float away.
Mindful breathing lowers your heart rate and releases feel-good endorphins, quiets your mind so you can think more clearly and make better decisions, and—let’s face it—just feels really darn good!
Tip #2: JUST SAY YES! to what supports your vision, to what feels good in your body, and to what inspires you and gives you joy.
You put your life into smooth driving alignment when you say no to the rest. And you do this by letting go of the “shoulds” and “should nots”, letting go of the externally imposed obligations of society and tradition, and saying “no thank you” to the seemingly-well-intentioned people in your life.
When the little details of your daily life and the more important decisions of your personal and professional life line-up with what’s most important to you, then you feel more energized and excited about life and work, you sleep better, you experience less stress and less strife, and that shows up in every interaction and every moment of your life. Priceless!
Tip #3: CHEW your food SLOWLY and MINDFULLY. That’s right! Give all of your attention and presence of mind to mingling all your senses and tastes into each morsel of nourishment that crosses your lips and lands on your tongue.
Not only does chewing slowly make you realize what you do and don’t actually like to eat, but there are numerous physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Here are a few:
Your blood pressure lowers and your stress level goes down
You have less acidity in your stomach, fewer incidents of heartburn, and your overall digestion improves
You get a big boost to your immune system
Your energy level rises and your brain works better
And much more!
Breathing more deeply, making choices that support what you want in your life, and taking more time to enjoy your food and chew it thoroughly are all things you can do now—at no cost—to Melt Stress, Boost Energy, and better Enjoy your Holidays.
If you like the idea of taking one or more of these ideas and turning them into an inspiring, powerful intention to take you to the next level in 2013, then consider meeting with me by phone for a New Year’s Resolution Strategy Session! More details here.
Erin Owen, MBA, is certified teacher of Vinyasa Yoga and Yin Yoga, certified Reiki Master Teacher, author, speaker, and Performance Breakthrough Coach. You can download a free chapter of her book Recharge, Refuel, and Re-energize: The Conscious Entrepreneur’s Guide to Taking Back Control of Your Time and Energy, subscribe to her email list and receive a free 7-day “Stress Detox” audio course, and learn more about her at YourPerformanceBreakthrough.com.