Mind Over Body

The idea of mind over body involves the use of thought processes to make our bodies do things that it would otherwise find nearly impossible to do. As a fibromyalgiac, I recognize its usefulness at times in order to accomplish tasks at hand despite the pain and lack of energy, yet I cannot deny having mixed feelings about it.

What kind of power does the mind really have over the body?

1. The mind has the power to distract you from the pain. I find if I am focused on something intently, I give less attention to the pain. It is especially true if I am engaged in art or humor, as these have an almost cathartic effect on me. This allows me to achieve some level of normalcy in my daily life. In turn, the activities that I focus my energies on shape my identity as more than just a fibromyalgiac. And some self-deprecating humor can help me talk about my problems, while (somewhat bizarrely) retaining more dignity than if I were to simply complain about it.

2. The mind is a source of reserve energy. Besides my regular daily dose of energy, I have always known of a secret well that I can drink from in times of urgent need or emergencies. During my intensive teaching workshop last week, I made good use of it. The timings of the sessions were such that I was forced to start moving before I had a chance to fully thaw in the mornings, and keep pushing myself for over 10 hours without much of a break. I am somewhat surprised that I made it through without collapsing in the middle of it, and don’t think I could have done it without my reserve energy source.

So what kind of power does the body have over the mind?

1. When the body speaks, a wise mind must listen. For the body has the last say.

Under times of duress, the body may be able to use the reserve energy from the mind and distract one from the pain in order to accomplish the task at hand. But that energy well is not bottomless. It needs time and rest to replenish. The mind might hide the pain from your conscious awareness, but body still feels it and the lack of rest takes a toll on it. The body cannot be bullied forever, and will eventually fight back.

All through high school until the early years of graduate school, I refused to listen to the alarm signals my body sent out regarding its condition. I ignored the little aches and pain and pangs of fatigue, until it developed into full-blown fibromyalgia. I was recently speaking with a colleague whose mother suffers from the same condition – and she was wise enough to listen to the alarm bells when they tolled, and is better off today than I am.

Even with fibromyalgia, I had to learn the hard way to not allow my mind to regularly push my body too far. Until then, I often found myself at the bottom of the reserve energy well, and then felt like the frog who keeps sliding back down each time he tries to climb up its slippery walls. Now I try to listen better when my body cries out for rest, or medication, though my mind may not always agree with it.

Be mindful of the use of your mind over body tactics

Our body may be the most precious physical possession that we have. It is worth treating with love and care. But as with all physical possessions, we cannot attach too much importance to it necessarily. It is worthwhile taking a few scuffs and scratches in our stride, as long as it is not too damaged. Unlike perhaps most of our other physical possessions, we cannot do without this one – not during the lifetime anyway – and that is worth remembering.

Do not let the mind bully your body!

Love,

Fibronacci

On Acceptance and Healing

I read a wonderful article the other day by Rene, author of the blog Periwinkle Pursuits, on what acceptance means to her – and it really made me think: What does it mean for me to accept my pain, my condition?

Accepting a painful event is supposed to be the last of the five stages of grief. So then, I wonder: Is acceptance, perhaps, the first step to healing? I don’t mean healing as in getting rid of your illness in a way that a broken bone eventually heals, but healing in the sense of letting go of the emotional baggage that comes with being chronically ill.

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The five stages of grief

I think my idea of acceptance of a condition like fibromyalgia is two-fold:

1. Finding a working relationship between pain and doing the things you enjoy. Since the pain of fibromyalgia is a constant companion, I like the idea of accepting it as one, and doing things despite the pain. However, one also needs to be smart about it and not overdo it!

One example for me is wearing heels. I love wearing heels! They need not be high heels, but even short tiny heels. They make me look good even when I don’t always feel up to it, and gives me that little confidence-boost when I need it. Do I perhaps look silly limping at times with heels on? Yes, I guess I do. I’d limp in flats too. But as my husband once put it: if you’re going to use a mobility aid, you might as well wear those 4-inch heels!

Now would I do it if the pain was unbearable? Errr, no! Or if it caused prolonged severe pain? Definitely not! But in my case, short heels are actually more comfortable than flats. With the occasional high heel, a little extra pain may be worth the look and the confidence injection! But a LOT of extra pain would NOT be worth it.

Another example is me attending a teaching workshop next week that starts bright and early at 8 AM and goes on for 12+ hours (with barely any breaks) for FOUR DAYS. To be honest, I am dreading the brutality of the flare that is going to follow. But I am also very interested in learning more about scientific teaching so I can be a better teacher. So I am really really hoping that the workshop is worth the flare up of my symptoms!

2. Being grateful for the good things the pain/chronic condition has brought into your life. This one took me a while, but I think is very important. I believe that there is a reason things happen to us, though it may not be clear for a while what that is. Every event in our lives is meant to teach us something. The biggest thing fibromyalgia has taught me is to be grateful for the tiniest things each day.

For instance: most people can walk from one place to another without expending much thought to it. I used to be one of those people not so terribly long ago. But now I feel every step I take as I walk, and part of my mind has to be constantly focused on my walking. My breath has to be synchronized with my movements when going up or down the stairs. I call it mindful walking! And I’m grateful for being able to do it. I am grateful for the days when I am just achy instead of crying in painI am grateful for the days when I can go back to work after my aquatic medical exercise sessions, instead of the the fatigue making me bed-ridden. I am grateful for being able to get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, and live a full day.

Do I believe it is bringing me closer to healing though?

In some ways, yes:

Being able to accept my pain and make changes to my life accordingly has brought me some measure of healing on an emotional level. It has helped me see myself and my goals in new light. I have come to realize that working around my condition is not giving in to it, despite what people say. It has forced me to look for new doors and try to open them as old ones have closed on me. Perhaps even look for a few windows with cracks in them!

But in other ways, probably not. Here’s one example why:

Yesterday at my medical exercise session, I was asked how I felt. I responded, not too bad given the stormy weather. But my old physical therapist (who knew I was sensitive to the weather) noticed I looked awfully drained. I admitted I was tired. So they tried to provide me with some relief by floating me horizontally with one pool noodle under my neck and another under my knees. And I never realized how much pain I was in until I felt it melt away! I told my PT and EP that that was the first bit of pain relief I’d had all day.

That kind of acceptance can be dangerous in many ways! If I accept the pain so much so that I am misjudging its intensity and impact on me, then that could hide other serious conditions that might crop up in the future. But it is hard to know what feels abnormal when you haven’t felt “normal” in ages! So maybe the true healing comes from the next thing fibromyalgia is trying to teach me: MINDFUL ACCEPTANCE!

Love,

Fibronacci

Discovering Self-Compassion

A few days ago, I wrote a contemplative post, wondering how much I might be catastrophizing my own pain and giving it more attention than it needed. Ironically, I was in some intense pain when I wrote that after being advised repeatedly to use mind over body and ignore the pain.

Yesterday, I was in the same spot again, but ultimately broke down and took my pain medication. A few hours later, I noticed that it had taken the edge off the pain. It was now down to a level I could live with. And it was then that it hit me! I am already using all kinds of mind over body tactics to keep myself active and moving and involved with life. If it is only after taking the “emergency pain pill” and extra muscle relaxers that the pain is down to a manageable level – not gone, mind you – then how much worse must it have been before?

I would never treat anybody else in that kind of pain with as much insensitivity as I treated myself. So why did I treat myself like that? I would never disbelieve another person if they expressed that much pain. I would never ask them to just not pay attention to it or act like they are making it out to be worse than it truly is. So why did I disbelieve my own pain and wonder if I am catastrophizing?

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I think part of the reason is that, as a scientist, I am loathed to take subjective data at face value. And pain levels are just that! Even so, I feel like I often view my own situation with objective lenses from time to time, so there is no real reason for me to invalidate subjective data coming from myself. There is no prior evidence of me acting like a baby  or engaging in extended pity fests. If anything, I am always extra tough on myself. And now, my naturally harsh inner critic seems to have internalized things others say or views of chronic pain patients that the society holds, and is belittling me for admitting when the pain gets out of hand. And as an objective observer of myself, I can see that this is akin to re-victimizing the victim for an event they could not control.

As a person who has counseled child abuse and domestic violence victims, I couldn’t dream of saying anything that would make their pain feel invalidated. I have always encouraged them to admit their own anguish – if only to themselves – so they can work through it. And I must treat myself the same way.

Self-Compassion Teapot

In many ways, I feel the pain has robbed me of my youth, my dreams, my spontaneous adventurous nature. And that kind of pain and anguish is difficult to ignore. Both physically and emotionally. And I need to be OK with admitting that to myself. Not suppress it or call myself a whiney-baby for feeling it. I wouldn’t say that to a friend, if we had swapped places. So why should I say it to myself?

Ultimately, nobody can know my body as well as I do. So I need to take a stand for it when it needs me to. If I wouldn’t doubt the validity of a friend’s complaints who was in my place, I shouldn’t doubt my body’s either. I need to turn off the inner critic and take care of myself as I would a dear friend. I have never listened to “society” or “other people” when I have cared for or counseled my friends in difficult positions. And I shouldn’t allow society or people to influence how I treat myself either.

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It has been a long journey for me, discovering self-compassion. I started it a long time ago when caring for my inner child overcoming various unpleasant repressed memories. I may have gone off-track for a while. But I am grateful for the turn of events that has brought me back!

Love,

Fibronacci

 

When to listen to your body vs. ignore the pain?

How do you know when to ignore the pain in order to get work done vs. listen to your body and give it a break?

This can be a tricky balance to achieve with chronic pain. We cannot focus on the pain all of the time or we would never be able to do anything; but overdoing things can get really rough too and lead to a flare-up which can take weeks (or sometimes months) to subside. So where is the fine line that we try not to cross?

Featured image: In the Darkest Hour Before Dawn (11X14, oil on canvas)

In a broad sense, I would say my pain is fairly well managed to where I can live with it. I might be slow and creaky, but I am making progress towards my Ph.D. I can usually put in a full day’s work with little breaks throughout the day. I try to meet up with friends on the weekends, or crawl along during coffee breaks at work, so I am making efforts at not losing my social life. I am also trying to get into a twice-a-week aquatic exercise routine to work on my “pissed off” muscles. All of this despite the constant pain. So clearly I am somewhat adept at keeping myself distracted from the pain to some extent.

But how does one ignore the stabbing pain that makes it hard to breathe? How long can one ignore a neck pain that makes it hard to hold up their head? How does one take no notice of the intense shooting pains that feel like stingrays invading their arms and legs? And for how long, before they reach for their pain medication and/or collapse on the bed under a heating blanket? And how bad would it have to be before they take a day off from work or cancel their plans for the day?

I feel like chronic pain is like a child who often throws a tantrum over not wanting to go to school. It is generally a good idea to ignore the child and send them to school anyway. But how to tell when the child is really sick and not just pretending?

My physical therapists have all talked to me about the importance of listening to my body.  All to avoid that fine line between working my body and not overworking it so I don’t accidentally cross it.

But in avoiding that line, I sometimes wonder how far am I from it really before I call it quits. Obviously I feel I am edging close to it when I, say, take an early leave from a social visit; my husband can often detect the escalating pain/fatigue in me as well when that happens. But when I am constantly told not to focus on the pain, to ignore it or deal with it, I wonder – am I being a baby? Am I giving my condition more power over me than I should? Or am I being smart for listening to my body? How do I know if this is just a tantrum or if the child is really sick? Am I “catastrophizing” or just experiencing, and responding to, “rational alarm”?

It took me a long time to get to a point where I allowed myself to listen to my body. As a result of slowing down to a pace my body could handle, I think I am a happier, more balanced, person now. So I would hate to go back on my progresses because of my misgivings. But I cannot help but wonder anyhow – am I selling myself short? Am I capable of more than I am putting forth?

Am I really rising (enough) above the pain?

Love,

Fibronacci

Life and Death

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my life and death. Not in a suicidal or terminal kind of way. Just in more philosophical terms.

Featured image: Guided by the Lights (8X10, oil on canvas)

In many ways, a lot of my old dreams and old personality traits have died a slow ignominious death. At one time, I could see the course of my life from a bird’s eye view. I could see a path ahead of me, and a goal to work towards. I derived a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from my work as a scientist. I was diligent and good at what I did, and was duly appreciated and respected for it. I had a plan chalked out for what I wanted to do after graduate school and never doubted that I would be able to get there. I had non-work related dreams too – like training to be a scuba diver for instance. Now all of those thoughts and plans are buried somewhere under the ground. Perhaps, so is the appreciation and respect that I had once earned, along with a slice of my confidence pie.

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Those dead leaves might well be the remnants of my old dreams.

Yet in other ways, I have emerged at the opposite end alive and still mostly kicking (figuratively anyway!). I am having to take my life more one day at a time, which can be stressful when trying to plan a career, but quite nice in other ways. It gives me time to slow down and enjoy what I have today, in this moment, before I start thinking about the future. Even though I have had to steer my life in a different direction mid-stride, I have not let go of all my dreams . . . though I have had to modify them quite a bit. I have learned to be OK with the fact that I may not have a single career goal that I could strive towards. They may have to evolve with time, depending on how my body behaves. I may never be able to get the scuba diving certification, but at least my current life pattern is such that I might have the moment to just enjoy the sight of the ocean with my husband. I am not sure that previously I would have made the time, or that we would have had the connection, to be able to derive pleasure from such simplicity, just from being in each other’s company. With the slow demise of my workaholic uber-independent self is coming the rise of a more balanced person, who is learning to slow down and accept a little help once in a while.

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And those bright little flowers, tentatively pointing to the sun, might be my new life.

I don’t think I have yet come to terms fully with letting go of my old life, dreams, abilities, etc. But I recognize that a new me is trying to rise like a phoenix out of the ashes. And I am trying to do things and think thoughts that would encourage its rebirth. I believe that everybody needs to make some of sort of journey during their lives. I suppose this is mine. My chance to die and be reborn into a new person. One day, I might get there. Until then, I thank you all – my readers – for accompanying and supporting me through it.

Love,

Fibronacci