Nervous System, Pain Neurophysiology Education, Pain Science, physical therapy

A successful experiment with acute stress

In my last post I outlined some ideas from Neil Pearson on how to stress our bodies in positive ways, in the hopes of re-shaping the way we process pain.

I continued my experiment at the gym last night, and I think I stumbled upon the beginnings of what something like that would feel like.

Normally, when I go to the gym, I’m pretty much there to use the pool.  It’s the one form of exercise I never have to “pay for” in any way afterwards, in terms of pain or stressing out my SI joints.  I usually just do my warm-up and cool-down in the pool as well.

So usually, I don’t hang around–  I’m just in and out.  I head straight for the pool and then make an immediate beeline to shower and leave because, well, I’m freezing.  It’s fun, but it’s also kind of rushed.  Some days I feel like kind of a robot.

With the lessons from Neil Pearson’s post in mind, I decided to switch things up a little bit.

***

Last night, instead of heading straight to the pool, I first stopped by one of the empty dance studios. I had it all to myself– a big room with a smooth, polished wooden floor and one wall that was all one big mirror.

I had my headphones on, listening to a playlist of music I really liked.  And I picked up one of the yoga balls, and just started dribbling it back and forth, to the beat of the music, like it was a basketball.

Now, if you think about this in terms of exercise, it’s not particularly hard.  It doesn’t require a ton of strength, and I wouldn’t technically call it cardio.

But, if you think about it in terms of the nervous system, it actually was a bit challenging.

I don’t play basketball.  I don’t think I’ve tried to dribble a ball in years.  It’s awkward to try to dribble a giant yoga ball… but it’s kind of fun.

However, it does require quite a bit of coordination, especially as some of the songs on my playlist had pretty different beats from each other.  With each new song, I had to completely switch up my rhythm.

I ended up getting really into it, dribbling and jamming out to my tunes for about 45 minutes.  And I think I managed to reach exactly the kind of state of “acute stress” Neil was describing in his post.

It was a difficult new activity for me, but it was fun.  It was challenging, but in a controlled way.  I felt as though I was pushing the limits of my nervous system, in terms of coordinating movement patterns that were unfamiliar to me, while at the same time limiting the overall stress to my system.  (In fact, I think I probably was reducing my overall stress at that point– it was the end of a good day, I had all the time in the world, and I really love my music).

I think this is the kind of activity that, when performed regularly, could have a positive impact on reshaping the way the nervous system regulates pain signals.  It’s “distracting,” in a healthy and fun way.

Obviously these would be topics for further research, but I think two additional components of what I did, which add to its helpfulness, are

  1. That I found the activity enjoyable, and
  2. That I was listening to music, which on its own can also reduce our perception of pain

This is what I find so fascinating about Neil’s approach to chronic pain treatment— an activity can be therapeutic not just because it makes us stronger, or increases our endurance, but because of its impact on the nervous system.

It’s okay to treat pain and the nervous system as your top priority, not just as a side effect or the means to an end of another exercise program.

***

I find the concept of treating nervous system directly to be so fascinating, and I hope you do too!  If you want to know more, I would definitely suggest checking out more of Neil Pearson’s work.  And, as always, let me know if you have any questions or comments!

 

 

 

 

 

Chronic Pain, Nervous System, Pain Science, Quotes

Neil Pearson on the benefits of acute stress

I recently discovered this super thought-provoking article article from Neil Pearson on the positive effects of acute stress on the body.

We normally think of stress in as the chronic, ongoing stress that continues for weeks on end, taking a toll on our body in the process.  However, there are ways in which acute stress– that is, stress that only occurs during a short period of time, and then comes to an end– can actually benefit our bodies.

Neil writes,

If you want to make a muscle stronger, use it more.  If you want to grow more tolerant of an irritating or bothersome sensation or experience, step up to it.  Face it.  In time, it will bother you less.

Try playing a string instrument for the first time, and feel the intense pain from pushing down strings with your fingertips.  Keep doing it and your body will adapt, even creating a callous as a protective response, just like woodworkers and carpenters have on their hands and dancers have on their feet.  In other words, when you stress your body, typically it responds by being better able to tolerate that stress next time.

We are built to survive.  If there’s anything I learned in my health and science classes, it’s that our bodies are built to adapt specifically in response to the stresses we experience. If we continually perform a certain movement, the muscles that perform that movement will become stronger and better suited to the task.

If we perform a new task repeatedly, we will get better at it, until it becomes second nature.  Our nervous systems will change, and our mental map of this task will become more developed.

Our bodies crave the kind of challenge that we can rise to.  As Neil says, “acute stress is adaptive. This makes sense. When we exercise – challenging our physical abilities – we are not just improving our bodies physically; we are also making changes in our nervous systems.”

So.  How can people with chronic pain and health issues use acute stress to our advantage?

Neil suggests that we harness our body’s ability to grow and change in ways that can benefit us.  By teaching our bodies to do new things, we can give our nervous systems something to process other than pain, and try to jump-start that healthy, adaptive response.

If pain has been preventing you from exercising, Neil suggests:

Create acute stress while limiting the chronic stress of a flare-up: Make a daily plan to try an activity (or part of an activity) you want to do, but do it while you do your very best to keep your breathing even, your body tension low (only use as much as you need for the activity), and your stress level as low as possible.

So basically: we stress our bodies– our nervous systems, in particular, but also our muscles– in new ways.  But we make sure we are in the right place, mentally and physiologically, while we do it, by proactively taking steps to keep our nervous systems from going into fight or flight mode.

There’s even more in Neil’s article.  He talks about some of the positive effects of stress and exercise on the brain– how chronic pain can dim these effects, but how the techniques he suggest might present a way around that.  Definitely check it out!

***

All this talk about the positive aspects of stress reminds me of health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s excellent TED talk on “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”  I’ve posted about it on my blog before, because it’s just really so great.

In this talk, McGonigal explains more about how stress can actually be a healthy motivator, seeking us to reach out to others and form social supports, and also spurring us on to create meaning in our lives.  She also suggests that when we learn to view stress as a potentially positive factor, it can actually limit some of the negative effects we normally assume stress will have on us.

There’s so much more to say, but for now, I think I’ll let you check these two resources out!  Happy reading/Youtubing– let me know what you think!

 

Favorites, Inspiration

Kelly McGonigal on Stress and Chasing Meaning

I stumbled upon this TED talk a few days ago, and it was just what I needed. I can already tell it’s the kind of thing I’m going to be telling my friends about and re-watching for months to come, so of course I had to share it with you all.

The talk is given by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University. I had never heard the term “health psychology” before, but from what I gather, it has to do with studying how people make decisions, and exploring how to help them make healthier ones.

This talk specifically has to do with how we think about stress, and how our pre-conceived notions about the effects stress has on us can actually affect how our bodies react to it.

One point which I found particularly relevant to my own life is the idea that people who care for others in some way—whether it’s friends, family members, or simply volunteering– seem to bounce back more quickly from traumatic events that happen in their own lives.

McGonigal outlines some of the biological underpinnings to this phenomenon, in particular the role of the hormone oxytocin.

Like many others, I had heard of oxytocin before, and thought of it as the “bonding hormone” because it is released at times when, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for us to form connections with others. For example, oxytocin floods our systems during experiences like sex and childbirth.

What I didn’t know is that oxytocin is technically a stress hormone. Our bodies release it during times of stress precisely to motivate us to reach out to others. Oxytocin also has a protective effect on the heart, which begins to explain why those with more social connections do not show as many negative stress-related health effects.

Some of my favorite quotes are:

“When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”

“When you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.”

“Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort…. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life, and then trust yourself to be able to handle the stress.”

I loved this last quote so, so much.

The message is this: don’t assume that stress is always harmful. It can be harmful if you’re afraid of it, or if you don’t have enough social support. But don’t let the fear of stress stop you from doing something you find truly meaningful, that gives you that sense of connection to the meaning of life. Because it is that connection, itself, that will enable you to handle the stress of what you are trying to do.

Uncategorized

The Benefits of Acute Stress for People in Pain

This was a really thought-provoking article from Neil Pearson on balancing acute versus chronic stress in the body.  While chronic stress is harmful on the body, acute stress actually has a lot of benefits.  Pearson explains,

“If you want to make a muscle stronger, use it more. If you want to grow more tolerant of an irritating or bothersome sensation or experience, step up to it. Face it. In time, it will bother you less. Try playing a string instrument for the first time, and feel the intense pain from pushing down strings with your fingertips. Keep doing it and your body will adapt, even creating a callous as a protective response, just like woodworkers and carpenters have on their hands and dancers have on their feet. In other words, when you stress your body, typically it responds by being better able to tolerate that stress next time.”

His advice is:

“Create acute stress while limiting the chronic stress of a flare-up: Make a daily plan to try an activity (or part of an activity) you want to do, but do it while you do your very best to keep your breathing even, your body tension low (only use as much as you need for the activity), and your stress level as low as possible.”

I thought this was great advice.  So often we get the message that all stress is bad; that in order to be healthy, you must eliminate all sources of stress in your life.  I think some of this advice is a little overblown– you’re never going to be able to cut out everything that stresses you out from your life, and if you are, you probably won’t be very engaged with the world.

Instead, I think it’s best to strike a balance between eliminating unnecessary stresses and learning to handle the ones you aren’t going to be able to control.  One way to do this is to becoming more conscious of acute stress– the pounding of your heart during exercise, the strain on your muscles when you lift a heavy weight.  These are all stresses that can help you grow in a positive direction and, unlike chronic stress, they have an endpoint.  When you learn to observe acute stress in a mindful way, it can help to put chronic stress in a different perspective.