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How to Stop Freaking Out When You Hurt

mind-body mindful pain running the pain free athlete wellness wellness coaching May 15, 2018

I hate being in pain!

The other night, following a mountain bike ride, my left shin hurt so much I couldn’t even stand on it! I didn’t think I had done anything out of the ordinary. Yet, my leg was killing me. It’s funny how everything else I had to do that night suddenly became much less important than dealing with this situation. I was starting to freak out, thinking:

How am I going to teach my posture class tomorrow?

I won’t be able to walk the dogs. I need to call the dog sitter . . .

What will my clients think if I am hurting?

Not another injury!

Do I have a stress fracture? 

Wait! That is enough of this crazy talk, I told myself. Getting stressed is only going to make it worse. Let’s break it down and look at this rationally.

What condition was my body in when I went riding?

I felt like so many of my clients when they tell me, “I wasn’t doing anything different, and the pain just appeared from nowhere.” Well, maybe riding my mountain bike on this particular trail was an ordinary outing, but what about the lead up to mounting my saddle?

If I rewind the clock and look at the days before and morning of the ride, they weren’t actually all that normal.

  • Three days before the incident, I had a deep tissue massage that heavily focused on my left calf. This is something new that I’m trying in my quest for body symmetry, as this calf continues to be tighter than the right.
  • Two nights before, I walked barefoot on concrete at least a half mile. I think it was a better choice than the high heels I was wearing to our anniversary dinner. The last time I had walked barefoot like that was . . . ???
  • The next day I road biked up Colorado National Monument, a stiff climb, riding over 50 miles total. The last time I had ridden that distance and elevation: March.
  • The morning of the ride, I spent an hour or more squatting and bending to remove the last of the linoleum tile from the guest bathroom in the house we are renovating. My least favorite home project yet! I could feel my back tightening as I worked.
  • Posture exercises before the ride? Slim to none. (Bad Jessica!) Since we had been working so long at the house, Ken (hubby) and I had wanted to squeeze in a ride before dinner, which didn’t leave an extra minute. And I suffered for it!

Although I thought I hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary, I had! It wasn’t just one action, but the accumulation of poor movement patterns in the preceding days that twisted my position and set me up for compensation during the ride, resulting in my incapacity.

How serious is this injury, really?

When I couldn’t put weight my leg and walk, the injury seemed quite severe to me. It was life changing at the time. But let’s consider:

  • I’ve never hurt in this part of my body, knock on wood.
  • There was no dramatic fall or trauma that would indicate I broke a bone or that I suffered a debilitating muscle strain.
  • I have increased my efforts to lengthen and reduce the tension in my left calf through massage and increased stretching. Isn’t it possible that my body would go through a period of transition, while my lower leg learns to work differently? And couldn’t this rewiring of movement and change in position cause some unexpected discomfort on the opposite side of my leg?

Reasoning through these facts, my mind settled. I realized this probably wasn’t the catastrophe I was projecting.

When does it hurt?

Pain often becomes all-consuming when our mind is freaking out. When this happens, we can’t distinguish the subtleties in how we hurt. I started slowly in my analysis and found the following:

  • My shin hurt when I dorsiflexed (pulled the toes toward my head), but not as much when I plantar flexed (pointed my toes).
  • If I focused on being balanced through both feet and contracted certain muscles (glutes and adductors) while standing, the pain decreased.
  • Consciously walking with good gait mechanics—landing on my heel and pushing off my big toe—eased the ache.

Looking at this information along with the factors above, I started doing posture exercises to relieve my pain. I stretched my lower legs first, which seemed natural since that is where I hurt. Even though I knew and had written about treating the cause and not the symptoms of pain, I immediately went to soothe the discomfort where it was. Soon, I realized that was not the answer and moved onto exercises for my hips and back. I did feel a little better for my efforts, but I’m not going to lie: my shin still hurt a lot, and I couldn’t walk well. The main thing, though, was my mind had calmed, and the anxiety eased. 

I had done what I could. So, I went to bed curious, not worried, about how I would feel in the morning. I knew that negative thoughts would only add stress to my system and delay healing, so I let it go. My dog, however, reminded me of my misery twice during the night as she rolled over on my leg, waking me to searing pain. The next morning my leg was sore, but it was 75% better. I was able to teach my class, walk the dogs, and proceed with my normal routine, though I did take a rest day from exercise. 

This lesson of not freaking out about pain was one of the main takeaways my editor, Whitney, took from the book, Winning the Injury Game.

Whitney's Story

Jessica had been a friend and neighbor of mine for many years before I started running. As I progressed in this new athletic endeavor—increasing miles, increasing speed—I also started to experience pain. For many years, though, I never talked to Jessica about it, partially because of my belief that asking for help was a weakness.

However, as soon as I felt pain, I freaked out: I have foot pain! I must’ve fractured a bone. Do foot bones ever heal? Probably not . . . I have hip pain! I must’ve torn a muscle. How does a torn muscle heal? What if it heals wrong? . . . My back hurts! I saw an ad for back surgery—what if I need that?! My mind immediately jumped off the injury cliff to unknown debilitating self-diagnoses. And the more I “freaked out” about the pain, the more I subconsciously tightened the area of pain, and the worse the pain became. My fear of pain was literally causing more pain. 

To make a tediously long story short, after having read and edited Jessica’s blogs and book multiple times, I eventually had the revelation that what she was saying might actually apply to me: pain wasn’t necessarily bad. If I could change my attitude about it by looking at it logically (Maybe this is just a result of postural asymmetries; maybe stress is contributing to bad posture.) instead of emotionally (Ah! Pain! Scary!), maybe I could actually treat it correctly. I began to work with Jessica on Egoscue moves, continued with some postural alignment activities, and worked personally on stopping my emotionally self-sabotaging attitude about pain. And yes, lo and behold, it actually works.

Is the change abrupt? Nope. Is it easy? No way. Honestly, I woke up last night with upper back and neck pain, and my initial—albeit fleeting—thought was wondering if I’d damaged my back while running on Saturday or riding my bike yesterday. (I of course didn’t take into account that I’ve spent the last two weeks hunched over my computer while grading 108 research papers, reading and annotating a 107-page document on new English teacher standards, and meticulously writing and rewriting a 16-page professional development document that could make or break my teaching career. There’s no bad posture or stress associated with any of that, right?) Change, both physical and mental, does take time and effort. But believe me—and believe Jessica—it can happen, and it is worth it in the end.

Do you need help dealing with the mental and emotional aspects of your injury or pain? Contact me for a free consultation about wellness coaching for these issues.

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