If you’re struggling with fitness or chronic pain start with mental health

Below a blog post that I originally wrote in March of 2015. Upon reading it, I think my original thoughts and message are still relevant and mostly accurate today.

I also created an audio version of this post, where I read the blog out loud and include sidebars with updated information based what I’ve learned about pain science and fitness since I wrote this.

Click the play button to listen to the audio version of this post. 

For the past five years, once a week, I’ve gone to therapy. I don’t dread the appointment, but as someone who would prefer to mask her feelings with acerbic wit, I don’t look forward to it either.

At this point, it often feels like maintenance. Weeks will go by where I feel like I have little to share, but then something will trigger me and I’m reminded of why I reserve that hour to process my feelings.

Last week, I received an upsetting email. It came from a person who is close to me and it completely crossed the line. Given our history, this email was not unexpected, but it triggered an old trauma. I knew that there was nothing that I could do to stop their behavior or change their response. The only control I had in the situation was how I choose to handle it from my end.

When I opened the email, I felt my body brace as if I was getting ready to take a punch. I fired back a quick response about boundaries and mentally shoved my feelings into the part of my brain that files sadness and anger for another time. Then I went about my week perfectly calm as if nothing had happened.

A week later, I went to therapy and I brought up the email. The walls came down, the tears flowed and I was filled with previously repressed anger. I walked into that appointment calm and left ready to scream. I had to teach a restorative class, but my body was begging me to go for a run that would leave my joints aching enough that I’d be distracted from my anger and emotional pain.

Instead, I took a walk (or rather a stomp) around the block, (grudgingly) acknowledged my feelings and things resolved. Today, David Gray is on my Pandora, so clearly I’m a little melancholy, but otherwise okay.

None of this is revolutionary. We all have bad days and many of us have therapists. So, why am I sharing this?

Because five years ago, when there were no weekly therapy appointments, there were a lot of bad feelings and unexpressed anger and I used a lot of joint-pounding-lung-screaming-workouts to cope. I did this for long enough that my emotional pain ultimately left me in a state of physical chronic pain.

Before I learned how to process all the crap in my head, the gym was my therapy. It didn’t start that way. Originally, I had some generic fitness goal and I enjoyed the community. However, I quickly realized that if I pushed hard enough, I could flood my system with endorphins and dissociate from any mental trauma I was experiencing.

The fix was temporary and my feelings would return, but I was addicted. I responded by making my workouts harder and longer. The worse I felt, the harder I pushed. A few years into the cycle, I hit a point where I didn’t feel normal unless I spent an hour or two a day pounding on my joints. .

This wasn’t sustainable. I started working out compulsively when I was 17 and teaching fitness when I was 19. By the time I was 24, I couldn’t finish a class without my joints feeling like they were filled with cement. My hips, feet and back hurt all the time and my hands would go numb if I held a bar for too long. I began to realize that my pain wasn’t normal and I had a problem.

I was never formally diagnosed with any sort of disorder and in the back of my head; I always knew my workout compulsion was being driven by something emotional that had nothing to do with health. The same year I sought therapy after a bad break-up, I also started seeking solutions for my physical pain.

Transitioning from dysfunction to function wasn’t graceful. While I’ve always had compassion and patience when working with clients, it was hard to apply it to my own body. When I moved away from high impact exercise, I initially filled the void with an aggressive form of hot power yoga and blew out both my wrists. I had similar emotional backslides as I worked through difficult relationships.

Despite what felt like an exceptionally slow learning curve, things got better. One day, I woke up and realized my relationship with myself and my body had changed dramatically. My life had an absence of chronic pain. My feelings no longer had a volatile quality to them and exercise served as a form of recreation, not a coping mechanism.

I don’t consider this to be a confession. I don’t think my pain or my story makes me special or brave and I don’t think it’s all that remarkable. Pain is an equal opportunist. Be it physical or emotional, brought on by someone else, something else or our own misguided actions, we’re all going to hurt sometime.

Which begs the question, if pain is going to happen, how do we handle it?

The “easiest” option is to ignore it. After all, facing pain can be unpleasant. It means understanding how we got there. It may require changing our habits and letting go of things or people who we’re attached to. It can require facing uncomfortable truths and the things that hurt us. All of this takes persistence, patience and time and once we’re in pain, we’re already (understandably) tired. We don’t want to face our problems. We want to escape them.

This works to an extent. The problem is that if warning signs are ignored for too long, what was once acute with a somewhat clear answer can become chronic and require a more complicated solution. There’s a silver lining to this though.

No matter how complicated, most pain has a solution and the answer starts with self-care.

Self-care can be mental or physical in nature. It can be traditional therapy, religion, energy healing, massage, foam rolling, meditation, restorative yoga, walking in the woods, seeking help through allopathic medicine, or a million other things. There is no one size fits all answer.

The important thing is not that you start with all the answers, but that you decide you want take action to make things better. Depending on the source of your pain, you may be able to do it yourself or you may require a team to help guide you. Just know that it’s okay to need help, but you have to be the one to ask for it and follow through on the advice given.

Even if the path is unclear, bumpy and requires a lot of re-routing, taking action ultimately will lead you to where you need to be. Things may never be perfect, but they can get better.

Once you’re out of the chronic state, you have the tools to stay out of it. I believe this is where we have a chance to be truly proactive. Now, maybe what I have to say doesn’t resonate and you’ve always been proactive. If that’s the case, I commend you, but I have to admit for a long time, that wasn’t my reality.

As for the rest of us reactive (read not proactive) folks, we don’t need to beat ourselves up over what we didn’t do. We just need to desire change and act on it. Pain happens. Sometimes it stays for longer than we’d like, but it doesn’t need to be permanent.

It may be hard. Hell, it may feel impossible, but short of truly extraordinary circumstances, we can heal. Pain management starts with taking small actions in an upward direction.

The choice is yours.

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