Squatters Rights: Fear and Self-Talk

A few weeks before my first meet in October, Emily had me test my squat to figure out what weights to enter as my three attempts at the meet.  We started with a weight not too much greater than my working weight at the time, therefore not too far outside my comfort zone.  I knew where we were headed with this though, so I knew I’d be in uncharted territory pretty soon, and considering that squat is a mentally challenging lift for me, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  As I wedged myself under the bar for the first of those heavier squats, braced myself, and un-racked it, I was caught a bit off guard by the thought that sprung up into my mind, “Wow!  This bar feels light.”  Two steps back, great squat, re-rack, add ten pounds, go again.  “This bar still feels light!  Tight core.  Nice!”  Another great squat, another ten pounds, and a feeling of incredible confidence as I continued this process and hit what remains my 1RM for squat.  I couldn’t reproduce it during the meet.  Conditions were different during the meet – different location, spectators, nerves.  My form broke, my head popped up, my chest followed, and as a result I didn’t drive up with my hips.  All part of the learning experience, but almost without me realizing it, a different set of thoughts started establishing squatters rights in my mind – more doubtful thoughts, and the “squat script” in my head changed as a result.

The language that we use, the way we define for ourselves our circumstances, has a great deal to do with the outcome we achieve.  Put me under a bar for squat, and my sympathetic nervous system is going to be tapped.  That triggers a hormonal response, commonly known as “fight or flight”, in which the body produces an increase of adrenaline and blood sugar, faster breathing, increased body temperature.  All this in an effort to prep the system for a difficult task at hand.  Whether we experience these sensations as exhilarating or terrifying, manageable or chaotic, frightening or exciting, is entirely due to the way we interpret our circumstances, and our interpretation of the situation affects the outcome.  Smart trainers and coaches use this knowledge to their clients’ advantage.  At several recent training workshops and continuing educational programs I have completed, the presenters devoted a good bit of time to breathing drills to allow the athlete to manage some of these physical responses; one presenter, Lisa Lewis, specializes in helping athletes to create performance scripts to mentally frame the “fight or flight” response most advantageously.

The same process also applies to the way we understand pain.  Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Lisa Manning, CST, CHt address a group of youth and adults about mental health and self-care.   She gave the example of a bullet wound in drastically different circumstances to illustrate the point.  A study looked at the seemingly unusual response of many soldiers in WWII to bullet wounds.  In contrast to what one might expect, they largely remained calm and generally refused morphine to help control pain.  Why?  Because they knew their wound was their ticket off of the battlefield; they were already thinking of home, of what they were gaining from the injury, and as a result they weren’t experiencing the wound as painful.  Consider this in contrast to a wounded civilian whose thoughts are likely to immediately shift to what he or she stands to lose: time off from work, a disruption of daily life, inability to do things.  A perfect example of Louise’s oft repeated statement that “words are drugs,” sometimes literally numbing the body to pain.

I’ve noticed that recently, as we have been rehabbing my squat and as I’m gaining back some of the confidence in it that I had lost, those more affirmative thoughts have started reclaiming territory in my mind again.  Just the other day after a set which Emily said was solid, I told her I knew it would be from the moment I unracked the bar, because as I did so, “this bar is light” popped into my mind.  I’ve been playing around with that thought, adding to it, trying to script it as a regular part of my set up, trying to force the words even on days when I don’t really believe them, because I have learned that to a certain degree if I can control the language, I can affect the outcome.  What would happen if you chose one challenge, one small area of your life, and began rescripting the thoughts around it?  Certainly worth a try.

Faith, Focus, and Movement

Most people recognize that it is through our hard-fought struggles that we learn the greatest lessons; the easy lessons of success often have much less impact and are more quickly forgotten.  With encouragement from Louise and Emily, I learned a couple of significant lessons from my recent back pain.  Louise encouraged me to pay attention to the way my own body processed the pain, to focus inwardly to find my own specific answers to what brought relief or further discomfort, before putting my faith in the generalized answers I might find by googling something like WebMD.  Emily introduced me to the concept that movement is medicine, a necessary part of the healing process that allowed me to reframe the painful mind-body conversation that my injury had begun.

It was while I was in the process of writing about these lessons, that I heard two separate sermons on a difficult passage in Luke where Jesus says he brings division, not peace, to this world.  (Luke 12:49-56).  Not an easy passage, and not one that many people like to focus on.  Both pastors, Pastor Glenn Schoenberger from Our Savior Lutheran Church and Pastor Earl Janssen of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, recognized that this is not the way we usually like to think of the message of Christianity.  As Pastor Glenn says, we prefer the Jesus of Christmas, the Prince of Peace; “the Jesus who invites us to come to him and he will give us rest, because his yoke is easy and his burden light.”  We are far less interested in the Jesus who promises to turn family members against each other.  Yikes.

Instead of giving us what we want, Jesus offers us some “edgy” stuff, as Pastor Glenn said.  Pastor Glenn acknowledged that the early history of Christianity was one of near constant confrontation with authority and established structures, and that to follow Jesus at that time required “all of the passion and commitment and courage [His followers] could muster” because it was likely that they would “be divided from loved ones who [didn’t] understand or believe in [their] choice.”  While this was the situation during the early days of Christianity, “the practice of our faith holds far less danger and challenge for us in American society today than in Jesus’ time.”  While he recognized that this isn’t the case everywhere, Pastor Glenn suggested that perhaps we lose something of the original intent when we become comfortable in a certain place in our faith where nothing is risked and nothing is challenged.

For another take on this reading (along with a warning that paraphrasing Jesus is dangerous), Pastor Earl summed the passage up like this:  Jesus says to those who were following him, “Really? What did you expect when you started to follow me? Did you really anticipate that I’d make your life easier? I’m proclaiming justice, I’m proclaiming selflessness, I’m showing you what being a child of God means. The powers of this world don’t accept that without a fight.”  From either sermon, it’s clear that this text offers us something challenging, something potentially painful, something we might rather avoid.

conversation-bubbles-2Like the lessons I learned from my painful back, Pastor Earl suggested that the way to engage with this challenging and divisive passage is to turn our focus inward and then to move.  First we need to find our answer to the question, “How does my faith inform my decisions?”  This is not always an easy question to answer, and we can’t expect our answers to square up neatly with those around us.  These differences in response might seem odd, since we “would think that the teachings of Jesus would lead us all toward a single definitive decision”, but instead often we find potentially painful division.  But just as I learned from my back, that pain is not necessarily something we should shy away from; it is something we should move through: “… the reality is that faith informs each of us differently. That’s why … conversations are so important. Faith isn’t some kind of static thing. It is living, breathing, dynamic and so deeply influenced by the witnesses who have surrounded us.”  So we first look inward, and then we put our answer into motion by engaging others in conversation: “How does my faith inform my decisions? Ask yourself the question often. Share your process with others. You will learn about yourself, deepen your faith, and serve as a witness to life in the faith for others.”  And just as movement helped me reframe a painful mind-body conversation during my back episode, having respectful and open conversations about faith allows us to gain a greater range of motion in our relationships and an expanded ability to engage in life effectively, maybe especially when those conversations are “edgy” or challenging.

Initial Steps in Understanding Pain

As a culture we seem to be somewhat conflicted in our views of pain. Many of us believe that pain is a part of exercise, an indication that we are working hard.  We confuse the discomfort of pushing ourselves in a workout with actual pain.  When we feel real pain in our training, many of us ignore it and push on.  We wear T-shirts with catchy slogans like “no pain no gain”, as though being in a state of pain is praiseworthy. And even while many of us almost glorify pain in the context of exercise, we mask the signs of physical pain in other areas of our lives with ibuprofen, and we hide emotional pain from ourselves in busyness and addictive behaviors, possibly viewing pain as weakness.

When we actually do take the time to investigate our pain, we often do so through our intellect rather than through our bodies. We research, Google, and read what others have to tell us about our pain rather than listen to what we are actually experiencing.  We are more inclined to trust what someone else tells us about our condition than we are to actually experience our own pain to learn what our own bodies have to say about what makes us feel better or worse.  We focus our attention outward rather than on what’s happening within us.

I am no different.  When I hurt my back recently my first reaction was to email my experts, Louise and Emily, asking them to decipher my pain for me from three states away. I wanted answers: What did they think I had done?  Pulled muscle?  Slipped disc?  Which specific muscles were involved? How should I fix it?  Louise tried to explain to me that really I would need to answer my own questions and that I would not find those answers through my intellect: “You can not think your way out of your back pain,” she told me.  Instead she suggested that I would be able to find the answers I really needed, what made it better and what made it worse, by listening to my body not my mind.  That I would be able to find the initial answers I sought through breath and feel and movement. Once I had those initial answers, I could go from there with better understanding.

This first step of understanding through our own bodily experience, rather than through intellect or through an expert opinion, is one that I was trying to by-pass, in my impatience to be better.  And as Louise and I discussed later, it is fairly typical of the way most of us function.  We often first look externally for a diagnosis, for generalized expert advice about how to deal with our specific situation.  This is often less helpful than learning how our particular bodies respond to our particular situation; as Louise says, it is like “putting duct tape over your crying child’s mouth without any conversation about what the matter is and what can be done to take care of it, both in the immediate moment and for the sake of preventing it in the future.”

It seems like many of us try to by-pass this initial step, not wanting to take the time to learn what our bodies might have to teach us.  While I’m definitely not advocating for people to walk around in constant physical pain, certainly not sudden or acute pain, without seeking treatment, what I am suggesting is that pain is neither a sign of weakness nor something that we need to fear any more than it is the hallmark of an effective training session.  It is really just our body’s way of asking us to pay attention, to turn our sights inward, to be aware.  Perhaps if we take some time to find our own answers first, to pay attention to what makes our pain more or less intense, to trust our own bodies, than we will be better able to advocate for ourselves and provide useful feedback if we do need to seek medical attention.  Perhaps if we try to understand first through feel and then through intellect we can be more active participants in our recovery.