It was a night just like tonight…
Ok, not that kind of story but a deeper more rooted story. A story that is so powerfully imbedded into the subconscious that it can be affecting the trajectory of your health and wellbeing.
As many of you know, I had my third and final back surgery last August. This recovery, unlike any other, challenged me more mentally than it did physically. Before even knowing the success of my surgery, I chose to write a goodbye letter to my seventeen year battle with chronic pain on the eve of my operation. That letter took on an entirely different path as my hand vigorously wrote to this thing I utterly despised but realized through reviewing the letter, also loved. There was a part of me who was terrified to let go of this thing, as negative as it was, that had become my companion, my identity, my crutch and my priority. Who was I without my pain? I wasn’t quite sure and I was terrified to find out that perhaps my fullest potential without pain wouldn’t actually amount to much more.
One of the scariest times during my recovery was when I woke up on day four and my chronic, sharp pain was back. The scary part wasn’t that it was back after four days post-op of not feeling it but it was my initial reaction to the absolute comfort of feeling it, again. I felt at home and warm with the shearing, excruciating pain as I welcomed my old frenemy back. This reunion was interrupted by the intrusive thought, “This isn’t normal.”
That moment was a turning point in my mental recovery. I was sincerely terrified by the entrenched connection I had to this thing that I was simultaneously telling myself was holding me back from my authentic, pain-free self. So, I started to dig deep into my relationship with my pain and found a long and epic story that narrated my everyday. This story was my Iliad full of war and battles, villains, physical and emotional traumas, lost opportunities and connections, and a blend of a warrior and damsel in great distress. As long as I believed and paid homage to the theme of strife, pain, and trauma, I wasn’t going to let go of the pain that had the chance of leaving with the removal of the four screws and two bars that were improperly positioned in my back. Which story was I going to feed: the background narration that justified my actions, feelings, and downfalls or the blank page of unknown possibilities?
I see this often in my nutrition practice especially when someone comes in with a chronic condition. Yes, there are almost always physical reasons why this person persists in their illness but I have found that without addressing the neurologically embedded stories of chronic conditions, the body and mind cannot concede to heal. I ask tough questions to my clients about their relationship with their condition and whether or not they are willing to give it up and what that means for who they are if they no longer have it. Often times, people looked offended and say, “I hate my digestive distress. I would give anything to get rid of it.” But frequently, they choose behaviors that do not align with this statement or the goals we have set forth for healing. Instead they choose foods, stressors, ignorance of self-care and lack of sleep and remain in their condition. And again, I have to go back to the client to ask if they are willing to let go of their condition and inquire about what they are benefiting from by staying in their condition. This is a tricky one because most people are even more offended, “Nothing! I get pain and misery and that’s about it.” But when I dig deeper, there is almost always a trade off for being in a condition. For me, I got to isolate when I didn’t feel like being social, I had an excuse as to why I wasn’t my best, I received empathy from all those around me, I was given a little more grace and leeway, and I had a focus and passion each day…to get through the pain. When we are able to name the story, envision who we are without it, and discover the advantages of the condition, the brain starts to chip away at the identity and the story. When clients do this, they are able to more fully commit to their goals with a new vigor and tenacity that often leads to a path of healing.
Do you think (and believe) that you are physically broken, genetically destined to be depressed, forever tired and lethargic, physically programmed differently than others, a slave to the medical world and a prescription pad, married to chronic pain, defected by digestive distress, or that perhaps you don’t deserve to feel better? If any of this resonates with you, dig a little deeper and perhaps there is a story that is contributing to keeping you in a cycle of pain, discomfort, mental anguish, and suffering.
There was a lot of shame when I learned of my deep identity to my pain but I want you to know that it is actually very normal to form these attachments to our conditions. It is the brain’s way of collecting information and piecing it together into something that makes sense while (and this is the most important) keeping us safe. I beat this phrase into all of my clients and group participants: the body and mind’s number one priority at all times is to keep you alive in the present moment. So, it really appreciates, remembers, and recalls negative experiences in our life to protect us from being hurt again and in doing so, it strings together a story and identity that is tangible and relatable. It is an evolutionary adaptation to surviving and staying alive. On the contrary, the brain doesn’t recall and retain positive information to the same level. After all, positive experiences do not relay the same magnitude of information about survival (which is more engrained in your subconscious: the lesson of a hot stove or the feeling of opening a present?). My PT talked about this in regards to chronic pain. The brain remembers negative feelings like a telephone pole connection: quick, immediate, and hardwired while the brain remembers positive feelings more like cell phone reception: choppy, interrupted, and peripheral.
A pivotal moment in my life was when I took a Biology of Perception class in undergrad. It blew me away while crushing the concept that my reality wasn’t in fact a tangible truth. My teacher used several practices to show us how our brains can provide faulty information and that our perception was actually so limited in regards to what actually exists. On the first day of class, she opened with, “Humans only perceive ten percent of what actually exists.” I was mind blown.
And yet, we rely on this faulty perception of reality to tell ourselves stories about health, our experiences, and the world that we live in. Again, this is a normal and healthy human reaction but when we give too much power to these stories, we can fall into the trap of premeditated behaviors and feelings. In any given situation or health crisis, there can be endless possibilities of how someone might interpret its events and feelings and yet, we cradle our versions close like a Russian nesting doll whose stories are formed from stories of stories. How is your faulty perception and story telling effecting your health and well-being?
If you are ready to investigate your relationship with your condition, here are some practices you can do to put your stories in check and offer your mind and body a greater chance to heal:
1. Name Your Story.
Investigate your story by journaling, contemplating or talking about it. What is the one thing in your life that doesn’t seem to be getting better and what evidence do you have on it? Who are the victims, villains, and how are you helpless?
2. Fact Check It.
Look at the story with facts that have no association with emotion. An easy way of doing this is listing in column-form everything you feel about your condition (as much association to your story and emotion as possible) and next to it write the actual facts (asking someone in your life to help with this can add a new perspective of facts as well as hold you accountable to breaking through it). What are your blindspots? What aren’t you seeing in your situation?
Next, challenge the victims, villains, and helplessness in your story. Turn your victims into actors (what role and influence is the victim having in the outcome?), turn villains into reason (what are the facts around the thing that is causing your discomfort? Try to find empathy for it/them) and lastly, turn your helplessness into possibility (if healing is what you truly want, what can you do to move in a positive direction? What are all the tools and strengths you already have in this situation?). Check this out for more info.
3. Find the Benefits.
What are you benefiting from your condition? This is a hard one but there is almost always something we are getting in return from our suffering. Whether it be a lesson, bonding with caregivers, excuses to not reach your highest potential, a reason to take a pain med, sympathy from others, or maybe forced vulnerability. Are you willing to let go of these benefits in order to heal? How can you still get these benefits when you are well?
4. Write a Goodbye Letter.
Say goodbye to your chronic condition and ask yourself who you are without it. Dig deep into the fears that could be holding you back from healing. Thank your condition for the lessons and advantages it has given you. But be forewarned, you may be in for a wild ride and learn some ugly discoveries that force you to change your mindset.
5. Adapt a Growth Mindset.
It is imperative that you replace your story with a positive belief about your condition and instill a mindset that allows for growth and possibility. Pick a mantra, phrase, or belief that will now become your new background noise. Or go even further: if we know story telling has such an impact on our behaviors, use it to your advantage and completely re-write your story from a healing and positive place.
Research shows that those who adapt a growth mindset create greater motivation which leads to a higher incidence of goal achievement (learn more about this here). The words and thoughts we tell ourselves and others greatly effect our actions and behaviors. For example, I asked my husband to not to ask me about my pain anymore but instead, to ask me how well I was feeling each day and I took on the mantra: I deserve to feel well. Check out this TedTalk about the connection between our mindset and health.
6. Get Uncomfortable.
Try something new. Let your brain get out of its regular patterns and thought processes. Try a new hobby, activity, read a different genre book, socialize with a new found friend, go to a community event, cook a new dish. Prove to your body and mind that you have the capacity and ability to change. For me, I tried belly dancing which proved to significantly help my pain and increase muscle control while embracing humiliation…I mean, humility :).
I truly believe that chipping away at my identity and story of chronic back pain was instrumental in my full (yes, full!) recovery from chronic pain. Removing the hardware that was the root cause of my physical pain and intense physical therapy played a significant role in my pain reduction but letting go of my seventeen year relationship with it, allowed my brain to stop searching for evidence that my old friend was still around. Life is definitely different without my pain. At times, it feels odd to not have a nagging hum of discomfort as the backdrop of life but most days, I forget the memories of pain and discomfort and instead, focus on my deepest gratitude for my new body, my new life, and my next chapter of this epic story.
If you would like more writing prompts for discovering the emotional connection to your health, check out my Emotional Roots Worksheet that I have many clients complete to figure out if there are any underlying patterns that are impeding them from healing.