Most of us think and move the same thoughts and movements day after day, year after year. If we don’t take a minute to check in with where our body and mind is going, we can be misguided by our own selves.
Be Mindful of Consistent Physical Habits that might contribute to your pain
Part of my job, as a physiotherapist, is to assess how people move and figure out what’s contributing to their pain, stiffness or disability, particularly for those suffering from chronic pain. Understanding what people do repeatedly is essential because it adds up, so it matters. How are you sitting at your desk; are you crossing your left foot over the right all the time? Are you constantly reaching forward for your mouse? Are you shrugging your shoulders when you are very busy and in a rush? If you love to run, are you only running and not doing any other form of mobility work? Are you landing on your toes all the time and never using your ankle joint to the full potential? If you go to the gym, are you only working out your chest muscles and not your upper back muscles? Are you hyperextending your knees with leg extensions… etc, etc. Essentially, once we are aware, we can catch ourselves, then switch it up.
Inner Thoughts can Also Contribute to Your Pain
The same goes for our thoughts, yet because our thoughts are invisible, it is easy to forget about their importance. Thoughts are hard to observe, but critical to pay attention to… especially if we want to change the narrative. We think thousands of thoughts per day (whether we want to or not, whether we realize them or not) most of which are the same theme of thoughts from the day before. Our brain doesn’t filter the negative or distinguish the true from the false, it just processes them. For this reason, it is up to us to pay attention to what we are constantly telling ourselves, because if we don’t, well… you become your thoughts that you don’t even know you have, how fun is that?
There are Lots of Ways to Get in Tune With Your Thoughts
Personally, I don’t think it matters how you get in tune with your thoughts, whether it’s meditation, tuning in while running, cycling, journaling, cooking, whatever! What’s important is that we do it, and sometimes it is helpful to write them down and then replace or correct.
I tried meditating a long time ago but had given up because I thought I sucked because I was thinking too much (many of you can probably relate). Little did I know, this is OKAY, it’s actually perfectly normal to get lost in our thoughts because that’s what the brain is designed to do. Our thoughts are always racing through our minds, they don’t care if we’re paying attention. However, the cool thing with meditation is that it allows us to be aware of our narrative, it allows us to observe the story we are constantly telling ourselves. Then, without judgment, we can choose; choose to let go of, hold onto, or replace. This takes practice, patience and daily self awareness, but because the brain is so adaptive, by re-wiring our thoughts, we can change the way we experience life.
The concept of thought monitoring is critical to us all, as well as people who are living in pain. Someone living with persistent pain may have a thought pattern that goes something like this: I lifted a load of laundry and heard a creaking in my knees… “how am I ever going to be able to do anything if I can’t even lift a load of laundry, I’m so tired of being in pain, I can’t do this anymore, I need to sit before I make things worse, I’m going to end up like my grandmother who was in a wheelchair…” This is a simplified example of how one negative thought perpetuates another. This repeats day in and day out. These thoughts, true or false, negative or positive, influence this person either way and will dictate how they live.
So let’s get in tune, let’s pay attention to our inner world, because it is up to us.
It is up to you.
Eva Applebaum BSc. MSPT is a registered Physiotherapist. She currently practices at the Movement Co in the Glebe, and is a research assistant on chronic pain through the McGill University School of Physical & Occupational Therapy. Eva writes regularly on the topic of pain management on her website Power On Pain, and specializes in chronic pain management in Ottawa. For further information you can see a collection of resources on chronic pain management on her website.
Note from Chris: I also believe it’s very important to be aware of our thoughts, so that we really start to see whether they are directed in a positive or negative direction. I hadn’t heard this practice called “thought monitoring” before and I think it’s an excellent term that may resonate more clearly than the term mindfulness with some people.
If you’re interested in other resources, this article from the Mayo Clinic talks about using mindfulness to cope with chronic pain, and the book “Chatter” by American psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Cross that expands on this topic and provides tools. My clients tell me that NeurOptimal® sessions have significantly helped to bring down rumination/repetitive thoughts (this has been my own personal experience as well).