Pain comes in three parts, and this is helpful to know when you are in pain and feeling trapped. It’s also helpful to know if you are tired of pain and learning how to make it go away.
First, there is the physical source, the injury or illness that is causing the pain.
Second, there is the neurological response to that injury or illness.
Third, there is the psychological reaction to the pain signal.
Let’s go into more detail about how these are separate and distinct elements of pain.
The physical source is not the same as the pain. This varies depending on what’s going on, but there are lots of examples. For instance, a few people have a rare genetic condition in which they cannot feel pain at all. This is very dangerous, because they won’t always realize if they are burning themselves or walking around on a broken bone. Another example would be a cancerous tumor, which might grow undetected because its growth causes no pain.
Another way to put this is that pain is not guaranteed to match its cause.
A neurological reaction may not correspond perfectly to illness or injury. One example of this is referred pain, when the pain is being caused in one part of the body but it shows up elsewhere. Twenty years ago, I had a nerve plexus in my shoulder, which didn’t hurt, except that it caused sharp stabbing pains in my thumb and occasional numbness in my hand. Another example would be pain with no obvious cause, or something that is thought to be “genetic” but that turns out to be easily manageable with lifestyle modifications.
Another way to put this is that the root cause of pain can be mysterious and hard to diagnose.
The psychological reaction to a pain signal is variable. This is important because it’s something we can learn to control on our own, regardless of what’s going on. And that’s a hot take.
A contrary opinion.
Something that often offends people!
What we want to hear when we are suffering is exquisitely calibrated empathy and consideration. We want levels of caring and support that are, sadly, perhaps non-existent. We want validation and recognition of how hard our circumstances are. Even if we got it, though, it wouldn’t help. Kindness is no analgesic. Even if everyone else on earth knew how to behave with perfect tact at all times, it wouldn’t remove the pain or the source of the pain.
See also: Grief
What we don’t really like to hear when we are struggling is that there is some kind of secret key to make it all go away.
The reason for this, I can say with experience, is that it always comes across as blame. If I can do anything at all to control this pain that is taking over my life, then shouldn’t I already have done it? If my pain is manageable, then am I not at fault for not managing it? Why are you bothering me with this, you cruel and heartless naysayer? What are you implying?
There is something about the concept of chronic pain that makes it feel permanent, monumental, a sort of organ that only the sensitive have. My pain belongs to me and defines my life experience. Telling me I can make it go away is like denying a fundamental part of who I am!
Telling me that I can stop being in pain is refusing to accept my perspective, rejecting my description of my life and my experience. I’m telling you one thing, plaintively, and you are shutting me down and telling me something else.
You don’t know what it’s like!
This can be crazy-making for the person who genuinely does know what it’s like, who is sincerely trying to help.
Honestly, who else wants to talk to me about migraine headaches other than another migraineur? Who wants to talk with me about parasomnia disorders other than another insomniac? Et cetera.
When I hear about another person with a migraine, or another person with a sleep disorder, or someone else who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I usually start crying. It’s embarrassing. Tears start coming down my face. I want to drop everything and talk to them right away. I can help you! It doesn’t have to be like this!
My emotional overwhelm stems partly from fear that what I’ve been doing so successfully will stop working, that I’ll wind up back in the tar pits.
I remind myself that twenty years ago, when I was first diagnosed (first migraine, cancer scare, fibromyalgia), not all the information was out there. Doctors weren’t telling me anything helpful, just saying “it’s genetic” and “no, sorry, there’s nothing you can do” when I asked about lifestyle improvements. (WRONG, thanks for nothing). The things that did eventually work would not have been things I wanted to do, or understood how to do.
I thought all I could do was meticulously explain to everyone I met exactly how my illness worked.
I thought I needed to do this so that people would know to let me off the hook.
In the tar pit, everything on the surface level looks like an unmanageable amount of work. What, showing up to things? I went to the movies in my nightgown once because that was my version of fighting hard: Hey, at least I’m leaving the house, what do you want from me?
I felt challenged on all sides. How dare people question my experience or try to help me troubleshoot my situation? Can’t you see how difficult things are for me right now?
I recognized myself when I happened to be present during an awkward conversation. One party wanted to talk about her chronic pain issues, only the other person countered that she had an appointment with her oncologist the next week. This is by no means the only time I’ve overheard a Battle of the Health Problems.
Who wins these discussions? The one with the fractured spine or the one who went into anaphylactic shock and has to carry an Epi pen?
Look, the only way to win is to beat the illness, because pain is the real enemy here. That’s where that tricky old third part to pain comes in. How we react to it.
I started to win my fight when I realized that my level of pain was consistent (which means predictable), and that my condition was not degenerative. I found a sliver of gratitude in that, that at least I wasn’t going to wind up in a wheelchair or on an oxygen tank.
This is my nature. If I got to that point, I’d probably start scraping the barrel and looking for some other small sliver of gratitude. Such as that at least it was me, not one of my nearest and dearest. I’d take it on myself before I’d wish it on someone else.
I started to win my fight when I got curious. How does it work? What’s the state of the art for cutting edge research in this field? When I found out I might have cancer, I went directly from my endocrinologist’s office to the public library, where I found two books on the subject. I’d read half of the first one before my bus pulled up to my stop, and I’d finished both before bedtime the next day. My natural curiosity led me to pay attention and start tracking my symptoms, looking for patterns.
Taking pain apart, disassembling it into smaller pieces, is a way of figuring out how it works. Once we figure out how it works, why then, we have a realistic chance of turning it off. That’s what I did and I hope that I can help others to do the same.
A friend of mine happened to mention that she was just diagnosed with fibromyalgia. This came as a huge surprise to me, because we talk for hours every week and she had never mentioned that she had been seeing all sorts of doctors. She always looks fresh and lovely. I had no idea.
I told her, “I was diagnosed when I was 23. We should talk.”
“Okay!” She seemed excited.
Then I gave it some thought. What would I tell her? She wasn’t doing any of the things that I was doing when I got sick.
I shared a bed with my first husband, a man who snored heinously all night long. (My symptoms dramatically decreased after our divorce). My friend is single.
I was obese. My friend is fit and works with a trainer.
I drank soda every day. My friend never does.
My diet was generally poor; I ate a lot of sugar and vending machine snacks, and I rarely ate vegetables. My friend eats clean.
My symptoms started after I took a bad fall. My friend’s symptoms seem to have popped up on their own.
I thought back to how cruddy I felt as a 23-year-old, and how much better I feel now. Twenty years have gone by and I feel like I’ve aged in reverse. I would be in so much pain sometimes that I’d need help sitting up in bed.
Now I train in martial arts, and we routinely do “sprawls” and “breakfalls” where we throw ourselves to the ground and pop back up over and over.
I remember the morning after I did a half-day counter-abduction workshop. I had been elbowed in the face a few times, among various other indignities. I was bashed and bruised on every limb. I used to feel that way all the time, for no reason, with no bruises to show for it.
That’s how I knew I would know what to say to help my friend. I understood how she felt. I could listen empathetically. I could give her advice on how to talk to her doctors without them treating her like a malingering mental case.
I’ve talked to other friends and acquaintances who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It usually doesn’t go well. They will still say “You don’t know what it’s like” even though I demonstrably do! Like I would lie about having experienced chronic pain. Why? What would possibly be the motive of pretending you were ill and in pain?
[Getting away with things? Social loafing? Thinking that other people find it more interesting than any other topic of conversation? *shrug*]
The sad truth is that saying, “I used to feel the same way you do, and you don’t have to be in pain like that forever,” can come across as cruel. Why, I’m not sure. I only know it does.
My friend and I sat down to dinner. We talked about a bunch of other things. Then I brought the topic back to her. As a modest person, she found this uncomfortable. I told her I was worried for her and I wanted to help if I could.
I shared my experience from the mid-nineties, when a doctor told me that fibromyalgia was considered a “wastebasket diagnosis” and a psychosomatic illness. They only started to take it seriously when a medication was developed that could treat it, because hey, Big Pharma.
I shared all the factors I thought contributed to my illness, that did not affect my friend. That seemed to help her feel a bit better about her situation, that at least she didn’t have a thyroid nodule, that she didn’t have thirty-five pounds to lose. That she had health insurance!
I explained that having one frustrating diagnosis did not preclude having one or more other things going on as well. For instance, it was entirely possible to have fibromyalgia AND a food sensitivity AND a thyroid issue. It might be worth getting checked out for those. I have a friend who is allergic to onions and garlic, and another who is allergic to yeast and corn. Both of those conditions led to years of confusion, testing, and misdiagnosis, because there are a lot of symptoms that can indicate literally dozens of possible problems.
I talked her through how I tracked various metrics. This is because it can help to reveal patterns, and also because showing a doctor your metrics will grab their attention in a way that nothing else will. It says, “I believe in the scientific method” and it says “I want to get better” and it says “I will work hard to do anything that you prescribe.”
It also tends to solve problems when doctors won’t or can’t.
The last time I talked to a doctor about fibromyalgia, she said, “Well, you must have been misdiagnosed, because people with fibromyalgia don’t get better.” She tried to prescribe me anti-anxiety medicine. I suppose that’s because feelings of strength and fortitude from overcoming adversity somehow qualify as anxiety?
Whatever doctors are telling you, they aren’t talking to people/patients like me. If they’re talking to us, then they aren’t listening. I would think the obvious response to meeting a former fibromyalgia patient who does adventure races and martial arts, who has run a marathon, who goes on backpacking expeditions, I would think the response would be, “Hmm. Interesting.” Study me, I’m game!
There’s money in prescribing drugs to people. There isn’t really any money in “patients” who don’t take prescription medication and basically never need to visit a doctor. Just saying.
I told my friend that what she was experiencing is as bad as it gets, at least with this illness. She describes a feeling of broken glass under her skin. Nod, nod. It’s bad, but you’ve already lived through the worst. It’s not a wasting illness. It’s not like tuberculosis or MS or cerebral palsy. It sucks, sure! But it won’t put you on an oxygen tank and you won’t wind up in a coma.
Most importantly, I talked to her about the importance of high-quality sleep in becoming pain-free and eventually recovering. I shared all the things I do to set up my bedroom and sent her links to my preferred eye mask and white noise generator. At this point, I probably know more about sleep than her doctors do, since doctors aren’t really allowed to sleep. Whatever else happens, at least there’s one cost-free thing she can try to do that has zero side effects.
(Never mind that it’s the hardest one!)
What I gave my friend was information that has worked for me over the last twenty years. More than that, though, I gave her caring, understanding, and the knowledge that she can always come and complain to me. I share her sense of unfairness at the way illness can strike for no reason. I share her frustration with busy, condescending doctors who have no real answers. I share her desire to live a full life without the distraction of chronic pain. I can give her compassion. More than that, I hope I can give her a sense that it gets better.
Physical transformation is hard to imagine because we identify with our flesh. We think the vessel that we inhabit is simply what it is. My personality is one thing and my body is another, a separate entity, an enemy to my peace of mind. My body is just a sort of car that I drive around. We can’t picture ourselves inside a different body because the only way for it to feel real is to already have done it, to have lived the transformation.
We don’t really believe that our behaviors can have any kind of impact on our energy level or our physical selves.
I know this is true because I’ve lived it, over and over. When I talk about physical goals, I don’t just mean “weight loss,” although I’ve done that too. I mean any kind of goal that affects the body, from the surface-level cosmetic or fashion makeover to getting off medication and everything in between.
In my adult life, I have worn eight different clothing sizes. I have changed my shoe size, my ring size, and my bra size. I have changed my thyroid hormone levels, my blood pressure, and my resting heart rate. I have beaten chronic pain, fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, migraine, and a parasomnia disorder. I have been on, and then gotten off, thyroid medication, beta blockers, and an inhaler, among others.
It is physically possible to alter your own organ function, blood chemistry, bone density, muscle mass, and of course your overall composition of adipose tissue, commonly known as body fat.
If you don’t believe any of this, please do your own research and talk to a few medical professionals.
Or you can also pause and ask yourself, do you take any medications? If you do, then you do believe you can alter your blood chemistry, at least temporarily, and you can do the same with a bottle of booze. If you believe in the efficacy of a single pill, do you also believe in the potency of food that you eat in quantities of hundreds of pounds per year?
Physical goals are like any other goal. Most people fail because we can’t maintain our focus or attention on a single goal for any length of time. We’re quite capable of holding several mutually exclusive goals in our hearts at once. An example would be independence and freedom on the one hand, and desire for a romantic partner on the other. Another example would be the desire to be debt-free on the one hand, and the desire to spend lavishly without constraint on the other. A classic New Year’s example would be the desire to spend the same chunk of free time reading more, playing an instrument, studying a new language, getting more sleep, and of course continuing to do all the same things we did yesterday. Any time we choose a single goal, we feel sick inside at all the supposed opportunities we’re sacrificing.
We wind up doing nothing other than the default because we want so badly to keep all our options open.
The truth is that if it feels like a sacrifice, you’ll never do it, you never will. That’s because it means you think your default is working out great, and you love it. You think you’ll be “giving it up.” If you feel that way, then of course you’ll never meet your goal, because in your heart you believe it’s worth less than what you have right now!
That’s just as true of contemplating a pilot’s license or learning to surf as it is of changing your physical form.
I’ve never eaten a mozzarella stick. Most people would hear this and think there’s something wrong with me, that I’ve ruined my own life by depriving myself of fun and normal social evenings.
The truth is that the first time I ever saw a mozzarella stick, I couldn’t believe such a nasty thing existed in this world. They’re revolting! I wouldn’t put one in my mouth for love or money.
It’s relatively easy for me to maintain “the healthy weight for my height” because I think a lot of conventional industrial foods are gross. I don’t believe in temptation. If there’s anything I want to eat, I eat it, although I also believe that I don’t need to eat every single thing every single day to have a rich and fulfilling life. Whether I sated myself with chocolate or chips or croissants or crackers is not my measure of contentment. Any model of ‘sacrifice’ or ‘deprivation’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is meaningless to me, not relevant to how I structure my goals.
What I measure is how I feel. How do I feel when I wake up? How do I feel when I lie down to sleep at night? How do I feel throughout the day? Do I have the energy to do the things I want to do?
I also measure myself against common health metrics. Not only do I compare my own lab work to the average for my age, I also compare myself to other members of my family, expecting that what they are facing is likely for me at the same age. It’s likely unless I behave differently than they do. Most health problems take decades to manifest.
When it’s time to clarify a physical goal, it pays to get extremely specific, as narrow in definition as possible. That’s because we need to have some kind of quantifiable metric, some kind of data to track. How else will we be able to compare our results across a year?
If it’s pain or mood, come up with a rating scale that makes sense to you. Emoticons or color swatches, weather patterns, stars, letter grades, a numerical scale from one to five or one to ten?
If it’s mobility, take pictures and use a measuring tape. You can see how much your range of motion has improved that way.
If it’s posture, photos are one way to measure your progress and your self-assessment of back, neck, and shoulder pain or tension is another way.
I wear an activity tracker, and I keep an eye on how much of the day I’ve gotten my heart rate up, how many miles I walked, how many flights of stairs I climbed, how many calories I supposedly burned, and my resting heart rate. Every year or so, I have my blood tested, and I look carefully at each factor. It’s so important not to rationalize anything that is out of the norm. I’m doing this for myself, and it doesn’t matter to anyone except for me.
There are two ways to measure goals, lead indicators and lag indicators. Most goals are lag indicators, measurements that come after a certain amount of time has passed. We can only control them through repeated action. Debt is a lag indicator, a pile of laundry is a lag indicator, a failed friendship is a lag indicator. Chronic lifestyle-related health conditions are lag indicators, migraine is a lag indicator, body fat is a lag indicator. We have to find lead indicators to track that are directly linked to these outcomes. That’s how we discover systems and protocols that work better than our default. Another way to say that is that we can behave our way into a happier, easier life.
What would make your life easier? What are physical changes that could move you from tension to ease, from pain to freedom, from stiffness to mobility, from medicated to ordinary? Which body parts do you want to integrate so that they feel like working parts of your mental and emotional self? Do you believe these changes are possible for you?
Do you want this physical goal enough that you could consider shifting away from your default?
Something happened. I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, and a nurse asked me if I’d like to get my flu shot. HECK NO, I thought, because I find injections and blood draws to be terrifying and I like to have a few days to scrape together some courage. I thought October was the earliest that flu shots were available, and no way was this sneak attack on my mind in summer! What I actually said was, Sure, let’s just get it done. I know when I’m being a coward and I’m actively trying to suppress that part of myself. That’s why I started training in martial arts for the first time back in January. I didn’t realize that these two unrelated things would turn out to be connected.
First off, for the skeptics, let me share why I get the flu shot in the first place. I used to avoid it, just like, once upon a time, I believed that homeopathy must be valid because they sell homeopathic products at the natural foods store. (*facepalm*) Then one year my husband got a flu shot at work. I considered getting one, but I “never got around to it” because of course I would do anything to avoid having a needle anywhere near my body. I got really sick that year and my husband didn’t. I was down for eight days while he continued to go to work, whistling a happy tune and obviously feeling fine. That does it, I thought. I’m getting the flu shot every year from here on out.
I’ve gotten the flu shot every year for the past, I think, five years now? I don’t know what terrifying things people think will happen to them if they get a flu shot, but none of them have happened to me. I’ve been immunized against everything I can be, including tetanus and hepatitis, two common infections that I really, really don’t want. Intellectually, I’m convinced of the benefits of herd immunity, and my contribution to protecting little infants, cancer patients, and other immune-compromised people who can’t get vaccinated even if they want to.
Emotionally, it’s still been very tough for me to march myself in there and ask for an injection. Even the smell of rubbing alcohol would make me woozy. The sight of rubber tubing or any of the other apparatus, and even the mint-green color so common on scrubs would set me off. I would have to put my head between my knees afterward, even if I had the chance to lie down during the procedure.
Last year, when I got my flu shot, my husband and I walked from the hospital to the movie theater about a half mile down the street. I was sitting in the lobby with my head between my knees for twenty minutes, but if we stayed longer, we would miss our show. I was so wobbly that just a block from the hospital, I had to sit down in the grass and wait while he went to a convenience store and got me something to raise my blood sugar.
When I say that I have a needle phobia, I’m really not exaggerating.
That’s why it surprised me so much when I got my flu shot this year. As we walked into the ordinary conference room where this operation seemed to be proceeding, I informed the nurse that I get needle reaction and that I’d have to cover my face. She said that happened all the time and not to worry about it. She swiped my arm with rubbing alcohol, I braced myself, the needle went in... and maybe one second later, it was over. That’s it? I asked. I couldn’t believe it. The bandage went on and I was released.
I kept waiting for something to happen. I thought I’d feel the usual nauseating rush of dizziness that I’ve had since childhood. I was sure I’d have to sit there with my head between my knees and possibly risk missing my bus. I thought I’d embarrass myself, like I do every year, by collapsing and making a spectacle of myself. But... it was... totally fine. I can’t even really say it hurt.
My husband and I texted about it. “I think martial arts is doing things to me,” I said. “I know it is,” he replied.
What’s going on with this? What is happening to me after eight months of martial arts training in Muay Thai and Krav Maga?
Stress inoculation is one factor. This is the simple idea that repeated stressors gradually become less stressful through exposure. It’s the principle behind why Toastmasters helps people like me who are afraid of public speaking. It’s also quite true for physical pain, as I’ve learned in the mat room. I have been accidentally socked in the nose, mouth, and eye multiple times, and found that it either barely bothers me or actively seems funny. This never would have been true in the past.
Body composition may come into play. I have more muscle than I ever have before. There may be other components, too, like bone density, vascularity (more and stronger blood vessels), glycogen storage, or hormone balance. No idea, but it’s objectively testable.
Another possible factor is my resting heart rate. My resting heart rate has apparently been abnormally high since middle school. I didn’t really make the connection until I started wearing an Apple Watch. Every prior time that a health professional expressed concern about my heart rate, we would decide together that my fast walking to the facility was responsible. I couldn’t buy that rationale anymore, not with three years of tracking data. At 43 years of age, I felt like I needed to take my heart health as seriously as possible, and I researched how to improve my resting heart rate. HIIT, or high intensity interval training, came up as a viable method. That’s what we do in martial arts, especially during warmups. I’ve been training long enough now to notice a discernible downward trend in my numbers, and it’s possible that this adjustment has impacted my anxiety level around my needle phobia.
Maybe I’ve just been psyching myself out all this time. Maybe spending days or weeks dreading an impending injection would just put me in a stress state. I’m not sure about that. One year in college, I was in the health center, and records indicated that I was due for a tetanus shot. They had my ID and wouldn’t let me leave until I got it done! (Maybe I could have signed some form releasing them from liability or insisting that I refused a tetanus shot, I don’t know. But I did understand that I needed one and intended to comply... laaaaterrrrr...). I didn’t have any time to slink away and mentally compose myself, and I have to say that my panic and pain were just as intense as any other time, maybe more so, because tetanus shots hurt.
What I think is one of the biggest factors here is that my pain threshold is significantly higher. Some stuff I’ve been reading recently suggests that pain is controlled more by the central nervous system than it is by any specific body part, injury, or illness. This makes a lot of sense and feels consistent with my experience recovering from fibromyalgia. It also seems to fit with my impression that athletes in general have a higher pain threshold. I assumed they started with some kind of genetic tendency to feel less pain, allowing them to crash into each other in team sports. Now I believe the opposite, that sports training increases the pain threshold, and that this transformation may be available to anyone at any age.
Further, I have a suspicion that this is some kind of long-lasting neurological change. The reason I think this is that after a year or so of distance running, I quit having a problem with depression. It’s never come back, even though I basically quit running a few years ago. There seems to be something really interesting going on with a certain level of very strenuous physical activity over an extended time period. If running can change what felt like a personality-level issue with something as serious as depression, then it feels consistent that martial arts can change what also felt like a character-deep, yet minor, issue with a needle phobia.
At this point, I’m training out of fascination and curiosity, because there’s so much to learn, because I have friends at my gym, and because it’s starting to be fun. There are enough interesting physical and possibly neurological changes that I’m also following those trends with keen attention and interest.
Life is an endless tidal wave of BS. Accepting that is a great starting place. It certainly makes Stoic philosophy feel more relevant. There’s this other point, about the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which I explain thus:
Sometimes, pain (trauma, drama, difficulty, suffering) comes in the form of natural disasters or external events of vast scale. We cope as well as we can. Usually, though, difficulty comes from within, from our expectations and assumptions. We cause ourselves significant grief by setting up a lot of demands and rules that other people and the world in general never seem to quite meet. This is part of how we convince ourselves to believe in difficulty.
It’s difficult when we want people to behave in a certain way, and they won’t.
It’s difficult when we expect certain actions to lead to certain results, and they don’t.
It’s difficult when we expect change to come on its own, in a form we find acceptable, and it doesn’t.
It’s difficult when we insist on getting the results without the effort, and we can’t.
What if, instead, we believed in ease? What if we believed that really, things are simple and straightforward?
Nobody is quite as good at overcomplicating and overthinking things as I am. See? I’ve claimed this extravagant level of difficulty for myself. I buy into it as a part of my identity. I’m proud of it in a way. Look at me! I’m an insomniac! I’m a stress case! I’m tightly wound! I have a thin skin, too! I pledge allegiance to my difficulties.
I got curious about all of this, and started wondering what would happen if I just tried to Do the Obvious instead. Whenever I wanted to try something new, I would first ask, what is the most obvious advice that anyone would give to a beginner? What’s the checklist? What are the obvious first steps? Is there a FAQ? Is there a manual?
It got even better when I started asking whether there were basic checklists for things I was already doing. What if I just looked at my daily life and tried making it as easy as possible?
That question led to the systematic application of minimalism to every part of my life. More love, less of whatever else this is. Wherever I can get rid of stress or self-imposed obstacles, that’s a place where I can let more love in and breathe more love out.
In a way, belief in difficulty is a belief in fate, in evil, and in hopelessness. Let’s throw our hands in the air and collectively sigh OH WELL. Nothing could be done. Well, that sucked.
I claim that with free will and determination, we can do anything. We can’t always stop every bad thing from happening, like a hurricane, but then not every natural disaster is “bad.” Is it bad when there’s a giant storm on the planet Jupiter? Is it bad when there’s a hurricane in the middle of the sea if it never reaches land? If we define something as “bad” only when it causes human suffering, then can’t we do more to eliminate the human suffering that we can affect today?
Starting with our own?
The thing about belief in difficulty is that it restricts us. When we feel caught up in stress and drama of the ordinary sort, we feel too burned out and powerless to do anything to change our own situation, much less anyone else’s. We can easily slip into a position where we’re making our problems INTO someone else’s. Our desire to vent and complain becomes someone else’s headache. Our refusal to address our own problems until they reach breaking point can become an urgent crisis for someone else. When we feel that we have no free will, then we feel like our actions don’t matter. As if that were possible. As if it were possible to even exist without making an impact on the world!
As an example, I had a bad breakup once, many years ago. Looking back, the immediate cause was that I got sucked into a lot of negativity and drama on an internet listserv. This was long before we had a pop culture understanding of trolling or flame wars. I didn’t have the perspective to see that the hours I spent reading and responding to these threads was a complete waste of time that did nothing to serve me or anyone else. My boyfriend was the one person I thought I could talk to, the one place where I went to process all this junk. He tried. He asked me why I was talking to these people and made a few suggestions, which I took to mean that he didn’t understand and wasn’t being a good listener. I bought into a reality in which an email list was more important than my romantic partner’s companionship. In retrospect, I never would have spent five minutes on this activity. Think of all the good books I could have read instead.
Life is easier for middle-aged people in so many ways. I’d never want to be that young again, or at least not without all my hard-won experience.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of feeding trolls. I no longer believe in the difficulty of reading the comments or engaging with naysayers.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of the chronic pain and fatigue that I suffered as a young person. This might sound cruel or flippant to someone who is currently living that reality. I only mention it because every source I consulted when I was ill affirmed that I always would be, and there was nothing I could ever do about it. This is patently false. I got better, and probably other people could, too.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of poverty, and again, see above. It wasn’t instant, but I eventually learned how to earn more and get a job with benefits. There is plenty for everyone in this world, and it’s only our belief in scarcity that restricts that natural abundance. We feel threatened by the very idea of having to share, and that’s the first sign.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of poor body image. That comes from strong self-efficacy. I have it within me to learn how to do anything, to eventually reach any goal I set for myself, to hold myself accountable, and to go after what I want. I’m allowed to build muscle, get sweaty and muddy, explore the world, expand my abilities, and look however I want. If someone else has a problem with that, why should I care? My body isn’t about you.
There are difficulties that still captivate my attention. As I recognize them, I work on them. I simply question myself, Is that really true? Do I want it to be?
Wherever I have a difficulty, it’s certainly a smaller, less significant one than someone else’s. If it’s difficulty that bothers me, then logically I should care about the worst difficulties, not just those that affect me. Injustice where it’s worst, not injustice that I feel personally. Crisis where it’s worst, not just mine.
There’s a guy sitting two tables from me who is wearing glasses with broken frames. One arm is completely missing and they’re sitting catty-whampus across his nose. He’s tilting his head to the side so they don’t fall off. This is a guy who believes in difficulty! Surely there are several charities that could help him, or maybe someone would be willing to fix his glasses for free if he asked nicely. Maybe he could buy another pair at Goodwill and scavenge an arm, or fit his existing lenses in different frames. Maybe he could find a twig or a piece of cardboard and tape it into place. A thousand things would be easier than what he’s doing right now. He’s playing with his smartphone, so I somehow wonder whether money is the problem?
Looking for a demonstration of a principle, evidence is usually close to hand. I feel lucky that I happened to be writing about this topic as this guy with the one-armed glasses sits nearby. Well, that was easy! I turn my attention to areas of life where everything is effortless and easy. I always have the opportunity to focus on my breathing. I always have the opportunity to appreciate my loved ones. I always have the opportunity to let go of my past hurts. I always have the opportunity to look to my own behavior, change my own perspective, and improve my own attitude.
This is bad. THIS is the kind of thing that makes me feel old. Here I am trying to do the splits, and I can barely get my legs in a V. How am I ever supposed to turn a cartwheel at this rate? I’m looking at this book with a bunch of granny ladies grinning while they stretch, elbows on the floor, and feeling like I have barely half their agility. Darn it! I’m reading Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits, and right now it feels like I’m going to need a lot more than four weeks.
I’m a pretty bendy person. Other people may have trouble touching their toes, but I can fold over and put my palms on the floor. I can sit down, stretch my legs in front of me, and grab the arches of my feet. No problem! I can reach one hand over my shoulder and the other up my back and clasp my fingers. I can do a headstand and I can spin two hula hoops at once. I like to think of myself as more agile than most.
So why is it so hard to do the splits?
This is a non-trivial problem, dumb as it may sound. My tight hips are likely behind some chronic problems. My current working hypothesis is that spending a month (or six) stretching and improving my mobility in this area will help to resolve these other issues. If I’m wrong, well, I probably won’t be any worse off, and I’ll be able to do the splits, which is rad.
What are these tight hip problems?
For one, my glutes on one side or the other will sometimes seize up so much that I start limping. This is bad for someone in her forties, and I imagine it would only get worse with each decade that goes by. I do NOT want to find out what it’s like to have a permanent limp.
Next, I sometimes have some pretty fierce plantar fasciitis pain in my heel or the arch of my foot. This is weirdly worse when I’ve been sedentary; it didn’t bother me at all during my months of marathon training, and it’s more likely to flare up after my second rest day in a row. It was worst the first year after I quit my day job, when I basically slept all day. It disappeared after I became obsessed with the hula hoop. Right now it seems to have been reactivated by my martial arts training. A couple of times it’s woken me up in the middle of the night.
I was sidelined from running by persistent ankle pain. Two MRIs and six months of physical therapy didn’t really resolve it. Talking to a personal trainer at the gym revealed some insights, and two months of weekly shiatsu massage focusing on my shins finally eliminated the ankle pain. The trainer said it originated in hip instability, and that endurance running tends to lead to weak hip flexors, glutes, quads, and core. True, that feels true.
Martial arts training is definitely, visibly building these areas. Hundreds of snap kicks and jump squats will do a lot for your hip flexors, if nothing else! I’m finding, though, that I have a lot of trouble with roundhouse kicks, and that I feel a pinch when I do it at the correct angle that my classmates don’t seem to be experiencing. Even if I get nothing else from working on the splits, it seems obvious that it will help improve my roundhouse kick.
I gotta tell you, though, it hurts. I was able to train into the headstand in only two weeks, and that just felt like fun. (Except for the one night when I toppled over, smacked my caboose on the floor, and woke up in the morning with a limp that lasted about three hours). Doing the recommended stretches to work into the splits? Is NOT fun. It’s so sore.
Where do tight hips come from? Sitting, I imagine. I spent almost all my time sitting from my teenage years through my early thirties, partly due to my secretarial job. Or driving. I think driving causes more tightness on one side because we’re pressing on the gas pedal and leaning to one side to shift gears. Also we’re wearing seatbelts that cross over one side, and we tend to wear our bags on the same shoulder all the time, weighing one side down more than the other. These are extremely common issues, and they suggest that a lot of people are having some of the same issues that I am.
I can also claim years of running and cycling as contributors. As much as I love racking up the miles in my endurance sports, they cause repetitive movement along only one axis. Forward forward forward. I want to do a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday, and it makes sense to work on my hip tightness before setting out on that type of training. I’ll be super annoyed if I have to cancel my plans due to a recurrence of the same ankle problem I had before. This is what I think about while I’m sitting on the floor, trying to coax my unwilling muscles to loosen up. Legs, I need more from you!
This is where I remind myself that twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I had trouble just getting through the day, and sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without help. I’ve come a long way! I can’t help but wonder if doing this type of stretching back then would have helped. I sure wish I had, because with twenty years of daily practice anybody could probably do pretty much anything. Isn’t that what physical therapy is, after all?
Daily practice, daily practice. My fitness role models are all over sixty years of age, and many are over eighty. This is because I’m very concerned that Old Me should be able to get around, climb stairs, sit on the floor and get up again, and carry things. She deserves to keep her independence. I remind myself that if I live to my eighties, I’ll have fifteen thousand days to get down and stretch. If that isn’t enough time for my muscles and tendons to adapt, maybe by then I can just download my consciousness into a robotic avatar and sign off on the whole project.
If you have only one spoon today, I’m honored that you’re using it to read this. If you are fortunate enough not to know what “spoons” refer to, I’ll briefly explain that it’s a subjective unit of measure for people with chronic pain and fatigue issues, or other hidden illnesses. I’d like to share some thoughts that came up when I recently got some reader mail thanking me for writing about my experience beating fibromyalgia. (I see you! <3)
It puzzles me that virtually all of the online presence for invisible illnesses seems to be about emotional support and painstakingly tutoring “well” people in the details of our diagnoses. Aren’t we... trying to feel better? Shouldn’t we see a disease as an opponent, not a roommate or a spouse? Shouldn’t we be trying to GET MORE SPOONS??? Stop sleeping with the enemy and tell it to pack its bags because it is out of here.
First off, the concept of chronic illness drives me crazy. I believe that it is unscientific for a doctor or anyone else in the medical community to describe something as “incurable.” Just because nobody has cured it YET doesn’t mean it will never happen. Isn’t your entire job to try to cure and treat illnesses?
I’m pro-science. Let’s not get confused about that. I always get my flu shot and I’ll promote vaccinations to anyone who will listen. If a doctor gives me a prescription for antibiotics, I fill it and I take the full course. If I get a printout of instructions to do physical therapy exercises, or anything else, I follow those instructions. I’m obedient and open to input. This is why it upsets me so much when I’m treated with condescension by doctors.
The doctor who patted me on the shoulder and assured me that there were in fact zero ways I could modify my diet, exercise, or lifestyle to impact my thyroid disease. - FALSE
The doctor who told me he doesn’t “believe in germ theory” - UHHHH....
The doctor who told me I must have been misdiagnosed because “people don’t get better from fibromyalgia” and she knew, because her sister-in-law has it. She told me not to mention that diagnosis to doctors, because they would “automatically write you off.” Then she tried to prescribe me an anti-depressant, although I am not depressed. - HUH?
The point I’m trying to make is that just because you waited forty minutes for a fifteen-minute time slot with one overworked, obtuse physician who wasn’t able to help you, does not then mean that you are beyond help. Just because you’ve suffered for many years doesn’t mean you always will. Just because your pain is extreme does not mean it will always be that way, or that it will get worse. There are no reasons to believe that a physical illness will remain permanent and debilitating until the end of time.
I always felt that if I had to suffer, then let it be toward a purpose. Take notes on my condition and track my metrics. Record everything I tried on my search for relief and wellness. Use these notes to build a better treatment plan for the next generation of sufferers.
Then I take that attitude to my primary care physician, who invalidates my position. I’m game, try me! How many people like me constitute “anecdotal evidence” that is 100% disregarded by the medical community? How many more are laboring under false stories of sickness because this information is withheld from them?
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 23. I also had a thyroid nodule that disappeared without treatment. I suffered debilitating migraines for about ten years. I would say that I actively manage sleep issues that began 35 years ago, and I’m successful now about 90% of the time. Since then I’ve run a marathon, completed a mud run, and gone on several multi-day expeditions carrying a 40+ pound backpack. Now I’m studying the martial arts of Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. Four hours a week I repeatedly catch kicks, punches, and shoves, get thrown onto the ground, and do a full circuit-training workout. If I can think of any more extreme sport that demonstrates how fully I beat fibromyalgia, I might try it.
I’m a middle-aged woman with a history of multiple chronic illnesses. I crushed them.
I’m a formerly obese woman who fully recovered from thyroid disease. Now I wear a size XS.
How is it possible for someone of my age bracket and health history to be in better shape than I was twenty years ago?
How is it possible, when my doctors told me it wasn’t? How is it possible, when my doctors brushed off and invalidated my experiences? How is it possible, when I never took medication or had surgery?
There are three reasons.
First, I didn’t have a choice. My ex-husband divorced me when he realized how sick I was. I didn’t even have health insurance, much less another human who could help me get out of bed or fill in for tasks I couldn’t do. I had to get up and take care of myself because I was the only one I had.
Second, most of my insights and epiphanies and realizations and hypotheses came from TOTAL ACCIDENTS and coincidences. I would notice something that didn’t seem to make sense, and as it caught my attention, I would start to track more details while I tried to figure it out.
Third, being told that something is impossible is something that deeply annoys me. It’s stupid! It’s a wrong thought. It is unscientific, if I might be pardoned for repeating myself. I’ll trust a doctor who tells me to get a tetanus shot or change bandages or take eye drops. I’ll never, ever trust a doctor who tells me I’m stuck with some health condition for the rest of my life.
Nobody needs to run an obstacle course or go backpacking or start taking karate classes. That’s a high bar. All I’m asking is that we question this chronic illness paradigm. I ask that we allow for the possibility that we may one day be free. What if we’ve been misdiagnosed? What if we become “anecdotal” and have a spontaneous remission? What if we age out, as it often happens with migraines, because our hormone levels change over time? What if new research leads to new treatments, new medications, or new understanding of root cause?
Please stop sleeping with the enemy. Illness is not your body part. Illness is not one of your internal organs. Illness is not your heritage. Perfect health is your birthright. Track your metrics and keep asking questions until you have all the spoons you could ever want.
Technically, I’m on Day 369, but who’s counting? I don’t have to count how many days in a row I make my activity goals. For one thing, I wear a fitness tracker. More importantly, my body counts. My muscles and my heart and lungs are tracking every step I take. I can’t lie to my own insides.
There is something really satisfying about scrolling back and seeing all of these completed activity rings. The design worked. When I first received this Apple Watch as a gift for my fortieth birthday, I was still gimping around after an ankle injury. My athletic pursuits included sitting around and muttering to myself while reading ultramarathon manuals. On the first day, the record shows that I walked 1,044 steps and burned 30 calories. Fantastic! ...for a baby...
I got my first pedometer over a decade ago. They were pretty primitive in the early days. All they did was track motion. You could game them by shaking them back and forth. They also reset if they got dropped, and mine fell out of my pocket so many times that I had to start using a safety pin. I got one with a clip and that kept falling off, too. Memories... I remember the first day I hit what I thought was an important fitness milestone, and I ran off to show my friends.
A THOUSAND STEPS!
Um, the goal is TEN thousand steps. A thousand steps is like a quarter mile.
Let’s just say I’ve come a long way in twelve years. When I started out, it took me months to build to walking a thousand steps in a day. My daily average for 2017 is 11,055 steps, 4.9 miles, four flights of stairs, and 48 minutes working out.
Another interesting tidbit is that my daily average calorie burn from physical activity is: 407. This is why it’s impossible to “lose weight” simply through exercise. A bagel is about 245 calories, and a Costco muffin is almost 650. I could literally add ONE snack or make ONE lousy, inefficient food choice each day and completely wipe out whatever I burned from my workout.
(Flip this by thinking like a marathon runner. “If I eat this muffin that is nearly as big as my head, I can run at least 6 miles later”)
I used to think I could just skip this whole thing, you know, standing up and moving around. After all, doctors had told me all sorts of things about my health that included “exercise intolerant.” There is nothing like a diagnosed thyroid condition to give one a get-out-of-gym-free card for life, am I right? Then I went to the mall with my Nana, who was 75 at the time, and I watched in dismay as she struggled to get on the escalator. She was still working, still driving, still living a full life in every way. But stepping onto an automatic staircase with a handrail was physically challenging and intimidating for her. Suddenly, I saw myself in this context, as a younger version of my mother and grandmother. This was to be my future, too.
Unless I did something about it.
The kind of exercise that I do today would not have been possible for my female ancestors. By that I mean that they would not have been allowed. Women were legally excluded from competing in races like I do, we were legally excluded from gym memberships like I have had, we could not legally go out in public wearing the kind of workout clothes that I wear today. This probably has a lot to do with why there was no feminine tradition of strenuous exercise in my family. I had no examples and I had no idea what to do.
Start by walking. Walk 1% farther and 1% faster.
Start by paying attention to what you do during the day. Not what you “do” as in how busy you are, but what you DO, as in how much you physically move your body around. Notice your range of motion. Visualize your path through life. Where do you go and what do you see? Same stuff all the time? Hmm, seems boring.
Looking back at my activity level in my twenties, I feel embarrassed. I don’t move around twice as much as I did twenty years ago, I move around more than ten times as much! Middle-aged me could kick younger me’s butt without hardly trying. I just wish, I wish, I wish, I wish there were a way that I could go back in time and teach Twenties Me everything that Forties Me knows. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time feeling tired, ill, and trapped in chronic pain. We had a happy ending, though. The future arrived and brought some pretty great technology with it.
Just a few years from now, activity trackers are going to be available for everything. They’re going to test blood glucose and monitor our skin for sun damage. I predict that one day, gamers will be the fittest people of all, because they’ll be controlling their avatars with haptic body suits or some kind of hologram thing that requires leaping, rolling, and backflips. Until then, what we have now has been enough to get at least one sedentary, obese thyroid patient with fibromyalgia up and moving.
I do it to myself just often enough to remind myself why I walk the line the majority of the time. What do I do? I relax, I push my limits, I convince myself that I’m just a regular robust person who can do everything without boundaries. There’s a grace period. Then it catches up with me. Maybe I notice when I slip into Yellow. Usually I ignore the warning signs until I’m back in Orange. Then I go into panic mode, because I still do remember what it’s like to spend every day in Red.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about chronic pain and the various oddball symptoms that I experience along with it. What is true for me probably is not true for most people. What is true for me probably also is not true for other sufferers of chronic pain and fatigue, because not all of us have the same conditions or the same symptoms. My recommendation is always to track metrics, to keep careful records, so that you can find patterns and change your inputs to attempt to mitigate your results. I think that if even .0001% of my experience can be influenced by my behavior, then it’s worth the attempt.
Yellow: I get a headache, or I stay up a few hours late, or I overeat past a 7 out of 10 on the hunger scale, or my weight goes up more than 2 pounds, or I catch a cold
Orange: I get headaches more than one day in a week, or I get a migraine, or I have shooting pains, or I experience fragrance sensitivity, or my weight goes up more than 4 pounds, or I feel full-body aches consistent with my fibromyalgia days, or I start feeling chilly all the time and I can’t warm up, or I have a night terror
Red: Symptomatic nearly every day, migraines on a regular basis, night terrors on a regular basis, lethargic, dizzy spells, get sick and seem to get sick with something else days after I thought I was better, often simply bedridden with pain and exhaustion, too tired or ill to read, lose a patch of hair on my scalp an inch across
Right now, I’m back in Orange and I’m really angry with myself. Sure, I have plenty of reasons. We went on two vacations in a row, we went camping and slept on the ground in the cold, I carried 40 pounds of luggage around for a few days, we changed time zones, I got bitten by insects. These are problems that I can ordinarily correct by sleeping an extra hour or two per night for a few days after a trip.
Ah, but this time, it seems that I pushed a little too far for a little too long.
Whether it’s a cause, a symptom, or both, my body weight is perfectly correlated with my various other symptoms. It’s something I have to watch. Again, whether this is or is not true for other people is up to them to discover for themselves through meticulously tracking their own health metrics. It’s not a body image thing, it’s not a self-esteem thing. For me, for me personally, it’s a functionality thing.
We came back from Wyoming, the camping part of our vacation, and I was right at the weigh-in I had before the trip, within two-tenths of a pound. Despite all the sleeping on the ground in the cold and all the carrying of the forty-pound backpack and the fifteen-mile hike, I felt fine.
Then we went to Las Vegas for three nights. I came back four pounds heavier, and I was a mess.
How’d I do it? I Ate All the Things. In Wyoming, we were eating a lot of starchy backpacking food, but the portions were controlled and we had crucifers every day. In Las Vegas? Vegas, well. I think I had a half-cup of broccoli. Other than that, it was all stuff I almost never eat: Airport food! Potato chips! Salty mixed nuts! French fries! Hot chocolate! Cookies! Juice with HFCS! Appetizers! Huge portions! Desserts every day! We even had “chicken and waffles” with syrup at VegeNation. No schedule whatsoever. You can start to see where those four pounds came from.
Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, does it?
If you can gain four pounds and not notice, good for you. If you can gain four pounds and not feel immediate adverse health effects, good for you. That’s awesome. If that is true in your life, by all means, celebrate in a way that is meaningful to you. But please don’t tell me about it. I’ve had more than my fill of conversations where other people brag to me about their resilience in these matters. I’m a fragile person and I have to walk a fine line.
I gained four pounds, and what happened?
Shooting pains from my heel to my thigh, triggering my restless leg syndrome to the point that my husband noticed from across the room
Low-grade headache every day for four days straight
Weirdly sensitive to fragrance - I smelled someone’s nail polish outdoors and it seemed like I was “still smelling it” an hour later. Then it was someone’s body spray. This hasn’t been a problem for me for about a decade.
Waking up twice a night
Constant feeling of irritability
One full day of “brain fog” in which I struggled to stay awake, much less do any work
Welcome to Orange.
I’m handling this state of affairs aggressively. First, I’m tracking what I eat and making sure my meals are consistent in schedule and portion size each day. So far I’ve dropped 1.8 pounds in a week, which means I have at least another week of Orange to go. Second, I’m eating four cups of cruciferous vegetables a day. Third, I’m taking melatonin on a schedule. I’m still waking up a couple of times a night, and waking up too early, but at least I’m falling asleep on a reasonable schedule. Fourth, I’m exercising an hour a day. In Orange, I can still get a couple of hours of blessed analgesic effect after my workout.
No naps. No anti-inflammatories.
I have strong suspicions that all of my weird symptoms are tied to thyroid function. I had a thyroid nodule when I was 23 that was thought to be cancerous. All the symptoms of disrupted sleep, parasomnia problems, migraine, weight gain, lethargy, brain fog, pain, fatigue, low body temperature, and fragrance sensitivity were fully in place at that time. They’re my flags, indicating that something is off in my world. This is why I make exercise my major priority when I start to slip through Yellow. It’s the one thing that reliably seems to reverse the trend.
When I work out, I don’t feel as cold all the time, the headaches and night terrors disappear, I can sleep through the night and wake up feeling rested, and my energy level goes from a 6 to a 9. I feel like every hour I work out buys me two pain-free hours and an extra hour of solid sleep. That’s why I do it, even when I feel physically horrible and it’s the last thing “my body wants.” I push through and do it because I know I’ll get worse if I don’t.
I’m back in Orange, but I feel like I’m inching back toward Yellow every day. Here’s hoping that if I stay on track, I’ll be back out of crisis mode by the end of the month. It’s my wish that sharing my experiences might be of help to someone else in my situation who is desperately searching for answers. Track everything, be consistent, and keep holding on in the belief that a 1% improvement is always possible.
Flattering as it is to think that body image must be my main reason for working out, that isn’t even on my top ten list. However I look is nothing more than an inescapable side effect of the other things I do. The main reason I work out is that when I stop, even for a day, I feel gimpy and crooked.
Top Ten List of Reasons to Work Out:
10. Getting charged rent for apartment gym and too cheap not to use it
9. Compare myself to fit people 10-50 years older than me
8. Maintain ability to sit on the floor and get back up again
7. Can run up and down stairs during power failures
6. Opportunity to catch up on magazine reading
5. Almost all clothes sold in my size actually fit me
4. Maintain necessary fitness level to go backpacking
3. Save money by owning only one size of clothing
2. Chance to burn off occasional pancakes, cookies, etc.
1. Skip a day and get a kink in my neck.
Being fit is really convenient. It’s worth it just for the annoying problems it eliminates. I took a “rest day” on Saturday and spent the whole day feeling like someone rolled me down a flight of stairs. After my workout the next day, I felt so much better, especially in my neck and shoulder, that my “rest day” was more like a “pest day.”
I’ve had problems with my neck since I was 9 years old. I woke up one morning and couldn’t move my head, and my mom took me to the doctor. A stiff neck could have been a sign of serious problems, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t have any of them. I just slept crooked. This has been a perpetual problem in my life, exacerbated by carrying heavy school bags, commuter bags, and luggage. When I took up running, I was extremely surprised and elated to discover that the thousands of micro-movements from swinging my arms had somehow finally loosened up this stiff neck of mine. Walking helps, too, although it seems to take more miles to reach the necessary amount.
I hurt my ankle in 2014, and I had to quit running for long enough that my neck has started to seize up again. Now I’m back on the elliptical trainer. I’m getting ready to get back on the road again. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but already I’m feeling the difference between workout days and sedentary days.
Loosening tight muscles and extending range of motion are reliable ways I’ve found to make my neck feel better. Another thing that I get from working out is the analgesic, or pain-killing, effect. The first time I felt a runner’s high was the first time I had felt completely pain-free in a dozen years. A radiant, glowing sort of euphoria spread through my entire body. Nothing hurt. Nothing! Nothing hurt anywhere! If it had only happened once I would have thought it was a miracle. It turned out, though, that I could get this beautiful feeling on demand.
It hits me at about the 45-minute mark of very strenuous exercise. I don’t get it from walking. It comes from running at a particular pace, including steep hill climbs and stairs. The analgesic effect tends to last for 2-3 hours after the end of my workout.
I found that running longer distances, starting at the four- to six-mile mark, would give me three or four hours a day of being completely pain-free. It wasn’t just that, though. Swinging my arms thousands of times was loosening my tight neck and shoulders. Running for at least 45 minutes was giving me a few pain-free hours. Running was also improving my posture. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. My weak upper body had my shoulders rolled forward from years of typing and doing data entry all day. New muscle strength helped me to become more upright in my posture even when I was sitting around. The difference shows up clearly in photos.
Running changed my body in other ways, too. I had better posture and more muscle. I had these 3-4 pain-free hours. My neck and shoulders were loosening up. I started to sleep better. I got more restful sleep and I started sleeping longer without waking up. I learned also that I never had an episode of night terrors on a day that I went for a run. As long as I ran at least once every three days, I was protected.
Other things in my life changed. Being pain-free makes every single thing in life look different. I generally started having more energy and being more fun to be around. Sometimes I would run up in the hills and start bellowing random songs or making up song lyrics. Everything seemed funnier. At the worst of my chronic pain problems, my daily mood was probably about a 3 out of 10. As a runner, my daily mood was more like a 9! Everything seemed awesome. I would already be planning my next run while I was still running my current route.
Then it caught up with me. My stupid refusal to spend even five minutes a day stretching, after four years, had resulted in some tight muscles and an overuse injury. I continued to train on it, because I’m stubborn, and because if you keep your exercise-induced analgesia going long enough, you don’t feel the pain you should be feeling when you push your body too hard. It wasn’t until sharp pains started waking me up in the middle of the night that I knew I had to recuperate. The realization of how dumb and self-destructive I had been added to the overall mopey feeling of not being able to run.
Even though my only real exercise in the past two years has been walking 3-8 miles a day, and the occasional yoga session, I’ve kept many of the physical changes that I earned through those years of hard endurance workouts. My posture is still better. My pain threshold feels like a thousand times higher. I haven’t had a migraine in over three years. I’ve only had night terrors twice in that time period. I can still fall asleep a few minutes after going to bed and sleep a full night without melatonin. My body composition still includes more muscle, less fat, and a lower body weight. I still wear the same clothing size I wore when I ran my marathon. I haven’t managed to keep the looser muscles in my neck and shoulders, though. The message for me is still the same: work out or be crooked.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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