No pain, no gain?
Has anyone ever told you that you needed to slow down? A few years ago my amazing Naturopathic Doc said exactly this. At the time I was burning the candle at both ends working more hours than sleeping, eating and connecting with family and friends combined. I prided myself on waking up before the rest of the world (at least in my time zone). I’d work my body hard in the gym before starting my workday by 7am. I barely had time to suck back an energy drink and one of those artificial protein bars (filled with ingredients I could barely pronounce).
The rest of my day was typically spent tied to a computer or racing from one client meeting to the next. Usually, there was an event or two crammed in there that I would be on-site for, taking me into the evening hours. Even after my workday ended I was still obsessively checking my phone for client emails and responding even when I knew there wasn’t going to be anyone on the receiving end, at least until the next morning. I was praised for my on demand correspondence and truthfully I loved it. Side note. Being constantly available got me more event jobs which, brought in more revenue for the company I was working for at the time. This landed me in the role of Director of Catering and Events (fancy) and the big wigs knew my name. Ha! I was living the dream. Or was I?
Well, not exactly. My body was a hot mess (from inflammation) drowning in a stew of stress hormones. My nervous system was fried and very rigid (we weren’t friends) which led me to react defensively to just about every stimuli around me. Congratulatory emails, innocent questions from colleagues, the two-minute wait for my coffee at Starbucks, you get it. All led to a tightness in my chest and angry butterflies in my gut. I was angry, fearful and paranoid, all the time.
Cues of danger at every turn.
The guilt and shame I felt was smothering. How could I be here? I was “healthy” and exercised all the time and always been a getter down kinda gal...and now I could barely walk from one exercise machine to the next without feeling pain somewhere in my body. My gut was in bad shape from the fake foods I was consuming too keep to my allotment of calories for the day (that bulky poo we all desire was replaced with the runs, for months, sorry for the overshare but it’s true). I obsessively ruminated on stuff, was irritable all the time, restless, jittery and my thoughts constantly racing. These symptoms I was experiencing were a result of chronic sympathetic activation or a hyperaroused state. I was essentially in fight, flight or freeze mode a lot of the time. Even when there was no tiger to be seen.
And, then there were those times when I just felt numbed out and disconnected. I struggled to focus, my memory was impaired, and sometimes I was totally spacey. And when I felt like this I would withdraw, yield to confrontation and dissociate to avoid feeling anything. This was my nervous system shifting to a dorsal vagal state (hypoactivation) to protect me from what I perceived as a life threat (ex. your boss coming down on you for a slip-up).
To be clear, still no tigers.
So there you go. A little snapshot of where I was at the time. Now back to that ND appointment. I’m sure I smiled at her (because that’s what I do when I’m uncomfortable) but in my mind, I was imaging punching her in the face. I engage with ‘slow down’ in this way as lazy, unproductive and a let down to all humanity. The perfectionist in me would never be able to integrate this concept into my life. It put me a great risk of not being loved, respected and accepted (DANGER!!). I got that I needed to make some changes (it was, after all, interfering with my workouts) but my idea about the way through at the time was NO PAIN, NO GAIN.
Fast forward to today. Question. Can there be gain without the pain? Is it possible to navigate through life with grace and ease and arrive at the same outcome or goal? One fueled by happiness and joy instead of hardship and suffering? I almost choked on my coffee when I considered this. How the fuck do I do that? In addition to my own rigid ideas about slowing down, I’ve got a pretty fierce battle with all the social constructs and societal norms that reward those gains that come about with pain.
Full discloser. I don’t have an answer to my question just yet. But I’m contemplating it. My recently diagnosed post-concussion syndrome seems to be the straw that broke the proverbial camels back. In order to treat and heal my injured brain, I have to slow down and really moderate my energy exertion (no running, jumping or other Fighting Monkey high intensity stuff for the moment).
Bummer and necessary.
The good news (not that the other stuff is bad) is that I met this totally rad physio who specializes in this stuff. He’s really helping me resolve and manage some ongoing issues connected to a bike accident I had back in 2016. What that has started to look like is fully embodying what a resilient and regulated nervous system feels like...which I truthfully haven’t done before. (full full disclosure, I’ve avoided embodying anything, ever, because my interal experience has often felt like the scariest horror movie. I don’t like how they make me feel and often numb out when watching them. Same goes for connecting to the feels of my body.)
I have to tell you though, this slower gear feels pretty damn good, especially when I have restorative experiences that connect me to my nervous system rhythm (my go-to right now is walking with my dog and husband in the woods). I didn’t know that moving to my own rhythm instead of editing to everyone else's could be so damn nourishing and enriching. This means moving at the pace I need to in the moment, as much as possible, mentally, physically and emotionally.
Sounds really terrific right?!?
Well there is this thing called my reality. As much as it would be marvellous to hang out in the great outdoors all day long I still need to pay my bills, clean the house, be there for my family, and accomplish all the other stuff on the to-do list. So, when I’m staring down the barrel of an overwhelming day I’ve been turning to gentle rhythmic movements (like rocking when you were an infant) that can soothe the nervous system, especially when they involve the spine. Quadruped hip rockers followed by cat camel (cow) are a good example of this. In addition to the rhythmic qualities of these activities, I’m also grooving the hinges and articulating the joints (this is good movement hygiene). I do this solo or before, during, and even after other movement practices.
It’s magical how these simple exercises can be so regulating for me. My body also feels pretty kick as too. Not exactly a nature walk but definitely a similar end result of connecting to my rhythm, feeling more grounded, resourced and capable of meeting the challenges that come my way. Gain, without pain, maybe!?
When you’re in a state of fight or flight or freeze, the muscles along your vertebrae tense for protection. Rocking stimulates the relaxation response, while gently releasing the muscles along the spine sends additional signals to the brain that you are safe and able to relax. Add nostril breathing to the mix and you have a complete formula for re-balancing your nervous system.
Here’s another rocking activity for you to try: Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, wider than your hips. Open your arms to a t-shape across your body with both palms up. Bring attention to your breath if that feels okay to do, and if not the movement of the body may help you get there. So you can start there and then maybe layer in the breath with movement. (Not essential though to reap the benefits.)
On an exhale, slowly lower both of your knees to the right; inhale and bring them back up. On your next exhale, slowly lower both knees the left; inhale and bring them back up. Gently go from side to side. Notice if there’s the tendency to speed up, slow the movements down to match the length of your inhales and exhales.