6 Simple Shifts that Reduce Pain & Tension
By Justin Matthews, LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist)
What causes pain?
This is one of the most common things I run into in the Massage field. “Ouch! My body hurts!” No one is immune to it, however many people are dispelled by it. Plainly speaking, the tendency for many people is to either feel that they have been victimized with a defective body and they just accept that their body will chronically hurt for the rest of their life, or they are going about alleviating the pain in an inefficient manner, such as popping pills or drinking alcohol or not moving.
Pain is a signal. It is your body speaking to you; telling you what it needs. Problem is, we’ve become so disconnected from our bodies over the years that we have lost touch with our body’s language.
So, if you don’t know what it’s telling you, I can atleast teach you what it needs. Just like a baby that is always telling you something, you can either try to understand the little tyke, or you can simply go down the list of all the things it could possibly need or want and trust that you will find it eventually.
Handling the problem from both angles
1. Getting in touch with your body
2. Giving it what it needs
You can just choose one for now if you like, but I’d recommend you don’t, as it’s way more effective to take care of every aspect.
1. Getting in touch with your body
Meditation – In laymen’s terms – “being mindful”. You can either take 15 -30 minutes once or twice a day to devote yourself entirely to this, or you can do it at regular intervals while you are driving your car, walking around, taking a shower, etc. The main point is to give your body and mind’s health more priority than your daily worries, problems, likes and dislikes. Take the time to experience deep communion with your vessel of experience and your thoughts about this experience. Pay attention to unnecessarily tight areas and ask yourself, “Why am I clenching here?” - This applies to both body and mind. Clenching of either one causes the other to clench.
Everything we do is for a reason. If you don’t know the reason, it is beneficial to find out. Otherwise, if you just stop tightening and shrugging your shoulders, but you don’t handle the stressful thoughts that were causing your body to express “stressed” then it will go deeper and may appear as low back pain, ulcers, and abdominal tightness. If you are holding on in the mind, you will manifest constriction in the body somewhere.
So it’s very important to be mindful of your thoughts and the way you use your body. I’ll teach you how to release “clenching” in the mind soon, but for now, let’s focus on the body…
2. What does your body need?
Balance - In this realm of duality we are living within, every cause has an effect, every symptom has a root, and every action has an opposite. Opposite can also be referred to as antagonist. For instance, the bicep muscle is the antagonist of the triceps muscle. One flexes the elbow. The other straightens it. If you flex too much more than you straighten, you will become out of balance and eventually experience the pain of your weak and over-stretched muscle knotting up, trying it’s best to keep the joint stable.
Similarly, if you sit, stand, sleep, or walk in a certain position too much without balancing out the effect that that has with its opposing action, you will experience the consequences.
Every action has a unique consequence. Therefore, how long you can withstand an activity is determined by its detrimental effect. Typically, if you walk around a lot, there is a healthy benefit to that, and as long as you rest appropriately, you will be setting yourself up for vibrant health. Conversely, if you slouch a lot, and try to balance that with exercise or flexing your spine a lot while you stand, you WILL balance out some, but ultimately you will be degrading your structure, since slouching has no positive benefit. You can only withstand so much slouching before your body sends you a signal in the form of tightness or pain.
So, by using mindfulness, you can pay attention to how you sit, stand, walk, jump, run, hike, work, etc. and keep asking yourself, “Am I performing this activity in the healthiest way possible?”
Key note – Remember, gravity is constant. You are always working against it. This is why our structure has developed the way it has. For instance, the head is meant to spend the majority of its time balancing atop your spine. You can handle some deviation, actually that is helpful. It keeps you limber and strong, but if you deviate too much from your center and overstrain your muscles and joints, you will experience signals in the form of tension, headaches, pain, and the dreaded hunchback syndrome of the elderly. They don’t look like that because of age. That’s the victim mentality I mentioned at the beginning. They look like that because they have lived out of balance for so many years that they are basically stuck like that! It would take some serious therapy to get somebody back from that state of imbalance.
Relaxation – First off, you’re probably thinking that this should be grouped together with sleep, and you’re right to a certain degree, but let me fill in a couple blanks. This is really an offshoot of balance too, but it’s such a huge issue that it deserves its own section. Sleep is one form of relaxation, but just like meditation, if you only take part in the activity while you are doing it, it does you little good. You ultimately want to take what you learn from meditation and relaxation and practice it consistently, making sure that you are never thinking useless or destructive thoughts, and that you are never tightening muscles unconsciously and unnecessarily. Sustained negative thoughts and muscle tension throughout the day lead to an imbalance of stress, more than you can healthfully handle, and your system begins to break down, scream with headaches, pain and knots, and fall into fatigue and disease. Anything done in excess becomes its opposite. A healthy bicep curl stresses the muscle and produces growth. If done in excess, it produces strain, tension, bruising, pain, degeneration, etc.
Everything you do is optimized from a state of relaxation. In martial arts, the beginner’s mistake is to tense up the muscles while punching, thinking that somehow the power resides in the clenching of muscles. In actuality, the novice is slowing everything down, weakening his attack, tiring himself excessively, and fighting against himself since he is clenching antagonistic muscles. When the bicep AND triceps are contracted simultaneously, they cancel each other’s force greatly.
So, focus, take a deep breath, and relaaaaaaax
Exercise – There’s 2 ways of going about this. Explaining the benefits of doing it and explaining what happens if you don’t. Let’s start with the latter half; the dreaded “Sedentary Lifestyle”. Without exercise, you do not assimilate your food properly, your lymphatic and venous systems are dangerously slowed, your muscles begin to knot up as they try to hold the structures of the body together, your muscles, immune system, and brain function are weakened, and your detoxification process is stifled since the skin’s sweating function is one of your primary organs that facilitate detox. I’m sure there are more reasons, but you get the picture!!! Often times, the reason for not doing something is because one doesn’t have powerful enough reasons to do it. So, on the flip side, take every single one of the previous examples and inverse the adjective. This means that what was weakened is now strengthened and what was slowed is now progressed. You can enhance every aspect of your body, mind, and life by exercising regularly.
The topically important example here was the knotting up. If you have knots, and you aren’t working out regularly, START! And experience the benefit! You’ll want to start off slow and see what your body can handle, and keep yourself from injury. Jumping straight into any hard work-out that you aren’t prepared for is an easy recipe for disaster.
Do this, while making sure to work towards balance. Yes, balance, balance, BALANCE! Tennis players, golf players, rock climbers, runners, bikers, and so many others succumb to pain, tension, and injury due to imbalance. Sure they get great exercise in, but it’s excessively lopsided. If you play tennis, you’ve GOT to work on your forearm extensors in between practice sessions. If you are a golfer, you MUST work out the opposite swinging muscles. If you are a rock climber, pulling yourself up all day, you are obligated to work out your pushing muscles. And runners will doom themselves to shin splints if they don’t work out their lower extremity’s flexion muscles. Every action you do consistently, figure out what the opposite/antagonist of that action is and be sure to work that out as well. You don’t have to work it to the same level as your main activity, but enough to keep it strong and supple.
Sleep –Sleep is SO important. If you don’t get enough sleep, it compromises every aspect of your life. The cells in your body need time to regenerate. Your brain needs a break from all of the mental and possible emotional stress throughout the day. If you don’t get enough, the next day you are running on deficit. And if you do this consistently, you are setting yourself up for disease.
How you sleep is just as important as getting enough. Sleeping on your stomach makes you twist your neck and body in order to breathe and be comfortable. Your spine will hate you for this, as will the muscles that are twisted and contorted. If you sleep regularly with your head turned one way, one side of your neck will be shortened, while the other one is overstretched. This causes imbalance, as they will try to adapt to that position and when you move your body during the day, you won’t move with as much efficiency. If you must sleep on your stomach for now, atleast balance out which way you turn your neck. Be easy on yourself, you don’t have to make the shift over night, but resolve to train yourself to sleep in healthier positions in time.
When you sleep on your side, make sure your head is propped up to keep the cervical spine (neck) in alignment with the rest of your body. The only downside of sleeping on your side is the scrunching up of your shoulders. You can alleviate this to some degree in 2 ways that I know. #1 is to have a pillow or somebody extra special that you can hug. This keeps the top shoulder from slouching over all night. And ideally, #2 is where you will have a pillow lengthwise along your back and hips so that you can roll back onto it and OPEN UP your shoulders. This gives you the sense of sleeping on your side, but without the downside of scrunch time.
The Final and best way to sleep is on your back. Have a soft, NOT FLUFFY pillow to support your neck. I personally do this by getting a pillow that sinks in so much from my head that it’s basically not even there. Then, I take the bottom portion of it and roll it over once so that it fits in the contours of my neck to support it, while leaving the head at the same level.
To expand on the NOT FLUFFY part, one of the most common ailments I treat is “Forward Head Posture”. This is because of leaning in to read the computer, texting, reading and so on. Without realizing the repercussions, it’s easy to let the head hang forward. Look up “42 pound head” on google and see just what disaster this breeds! On this point, if you are recovering from this imbalance, you don’t want to support its continuation with 2 pillows under your head while sleeping. Ideally, sleep with NO pillow so that your neck can reposition while you sleep. But if that is too much of a change and is uncomfortable, then simply lessen the angle by removing or “de-fluffing” a pillow.
Knees and low back – Take pressure off of both of them by having a pillow underneath the knees when you are face up and underneath your ankles if you MUST sleep face down. Don’t sleep regularly with 3 or 4 pillows under your knees while face up, since that will cause your psoas muscles (hip flexors) to be chronically shortened… out of balance.
This is one of the most convoluted and confusing topics in existence, rivaling religion and politics. Everybody has their own philosophy and contradictions are seemingly unavoidable.
A slick media campaign can convince you a certain food or drink is essential when in reality it is not and may even be detrimental to your health and well-being.
In our fast paced society in America, people have adapted to eating on the run, and not giving much thought in to what effect it will have on the body. People often eat for instant gratification/enjoyment (taste, texture, smell, etc), convenience of consumption and preparation, cheap purchase, and quick bursts of energy.
This leads to “eating sugar, sugary foods, and dense, starchy carbohydrates that get converted by the body into sugar and trigger the release of insulin. This release of insulin not only destabilizes blood sugar and promotes fat storage, but it also leads to an insatiable appetite for more sugary foods. To make matters worse, the continued metabolism of sugar produces acid, ultimately making us lethargic and fatigued. In the long run, a reliance on carbohydrates and sugar undermines health, destabilizes energy, and diminishes your ability to go the distance.”
Here’s a list of foods that do just that: “Pasta, bread, cereal, muffins, fast foods, energy bars and drinks, candy and cakes, soda, coffee, Gatorade, and alcohol.” – Stu Mittleman, Slow Burn
Ultimately, what you decide to eat will be determined by the lifestyle you have chosen and WANT to continue to live. I’ll give you more precise information in good time, but for now, just know this:
Your body needs nutrients. Your body needs to get rid of toxins.
Most of your efforts should be targeted towards one of these 2 goals. Healthy meals = nutrient dense, detoxifying, or both. You can make this a pleasurable process by learning recipes and choosing the right sources. Solely pleasure focused meals here and there that have few if any healthy results are perfectly acceptable, as long as it’s not anywhere near the rule.
If this is a major shift, then you must prepare for an identity change. Your identity consists of your personal hierarchy of values. Presently, you value convenience, enjoyment, or price more than health. You must adopt the value system of a healthy person if you want to change. This means shifting your identity to the identity you want. In order for this to happen, the old you must die so that the new you can live. Just being aware of this process can give you solace during the uncomfortable moments of change. It’s a necessary process we all must endure from time to time. Your consistent value system must direct you toward healthy choices in order to have a healthy body and mind. It’s that simple. It’s all in your head! It does take training to turn yourself around if you don’t have some traumatic or emotional event to stir your urgency, and if you struggle with getting yourself to take action on your “desired” values, I show you how to do this in other lessons.
So, for nutrient dense – you’ll want to make sure you consume a fair amount of “whole” “raw” vegetables and fruits, since once you cook them; you destroy essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and enzymes… and once you break them down and start eating individual nutrients in capsules and shakes, you are now putting more faith in “man’s limited intelligence” than in the creative process that resulted in the “whole food”. The only problem with whole foods is that they may have been grown in depleted soil, with herbicides, pesticides and so on, and could have been irradiated or pasteurized at some point (mostly nuts and milk), so supplementation of known nutrients IS wise, but for these reasons and probably more, in my humble opinion, I would not rely solely on supplements and Meal Replacement shakes to survive.
Likewise, cooking can also toxify your food. Those black burn marks from grills and toast are called acrylamides. They are carcinogenic, meaning that they are cancer causing. Your body has to work extra hard to digest food that is burnt. Cooking is fine in moderation, and actually preferable in some instances, such as bread (which is highly mucous forming if not toasted). Just find the balance. If you cook it too far, throw it away and start again. Your health is worth it. (Remember? Value system? With the exception of being seriously rushed or some other emergency reason; Only someone who cares more about convenience than health would go ahead and eat it, saying a burnt piece of bread is “good enough”)
Most people know they need to eat more vegetables and less cheese burgers. It’s just a matter of getting yourself to make this shift. Rule one: If you haven’t gotten yourself to do something you know is important, you don’t have a good enough reason to do it. Keep asking yourself, why do I want to get myself to do this?” Write down your answers over a week’s time or longer. Once you have a big list right there in front of you, as opposed to one or two here and there, that will help to tilt the scales towards action. BIG Hint – one of the greatest motivators is “why you want to do it” because of what will happen if you don’t. If you can really take in the consequence of not taking action, and fear THAT result more than the necessary action to avoid it, you will do what must be done.