Understanding physical stress - Ignoring your body’s warning signals can cause long term damage to your physical health.
Part 1: IGNORE YOUR BODY’S WARNING SIGNALS AT YOUR PERIL!
The more I study the Martial Arts and the deeper I delve into bodywork and physical therapy, the more of a people watcher I become. Walking down the road, sitting in a restaurant, even queuing in traffic - are all opportunities for me to indulge in my favourite pastime. I absolutely love spotting all the little idiosyncrasies people have: all our bodies have a story to tell that is written into our posture and physical mannerisms. Every little quirk, twitch and stoop records an element from our past, and quite often offers clues as to where we would like to be in the future. It was the desire to learn how to read these ‘life stories’ that drew me to physical therapy and the search for that elusive mind-body connection that is always alluded to in ‘holistic’ circles.
Our bodies are phenomenal devices that have an extremely powerful and dynamic ability to respond to a huge array of stresses and strains. They evolve and adapt to enable us to go about every aspect of our daily lives and are shaped by the quality of our lifestyles. Quite often we take our bodies to hell and back and they faithfully follow despite a multitude of misuse and abuse! Indulging in a few little mischiefs here and there generally will not cause any long-term problems, as our bodies will always give us a warning signal: when we slip into excess they give us a hangover to remind us that we drank a little too much and perhaps a few aches to let us know that we have overdone it down the gym. All of these are signs that we have exerted ourselves too much and that we need time out for normal service to resume. The trouble begins when we ignore these warnings in favour of indulging ourselves further. As with any relationship, when communication breaks down so does the quality of the relationship!
When placed under stress our body will tell us that it is not happy. Naturally our body doesn’t have the ability to leave a note on the fridge or gently whisper in our ear - so it uses the medium of pain and discomfort to signal discontent. Aching backs, stiff necks, headaches and upset tummies are all methods at our body’s disposal to try and grab our attention. But how do we usually respond to these pleas for help? Pain killers, stomach pills and a host of other substances that allow us to ignore and drown out the warning messages - and it is here that things can really begin to go awry.
Most people see pain as negative, but in reality it can be positive. A great Shiatsu master called Ohashi told an amusing story in one of his books about a wife who brought her husband to him because he was so ‘ill’. She rattled off a long list of conditions that her husband had been diagnosed with and all the physicians he had seen. After listing a gloomy and desperate case history she turned Ohashi and said, “You see, my husband is very ill isn’t he?”
“Madam, your husband is the healthiest man I have ever met. To have all of these conditions and to still be alive is a sign of great health!” he replied with a smile.
Being ‘healthy’ can be measured very simply by the fact that we are still alive and kicking and the quality of our ‘health’ by how far we are from becoming worm food. An ache, a pain and anything that is outside of the norm is a sign that something in our body is happening that needs our attention. It is our body’s way of tapping us on the shoulder: not that it wants us to take some ibuprofen or to carry on lifting really heavy things. The sensation of pain, like all sensations we experience, is our body’s way of conveying an experience, and in the case of pain the message that is being sent is that something is wrong. We ignore these messages at our peril.
It is reading and interpreting these ‘signals’ that form the basis of my diagnosis as a physical therapist and the key for us all to understand and take control of our health. This is common sense that most of us are aware of, but more often than not these ‘signals’ get in the way of things that we really want to do, or sometimes have to do, so we push ourselves through the pain barrier. Our bodies will only complain for so long before they come to the conclusion that we don’t actually care and then they have to take measures to deal with the stress by themselves. Take for example a bad back, which will always start with a mild twinge: this is our body’s way of saying, “Would you mind awfully not doing that?” We respond by taking painkillers. What option does our poor back have after that? It needs to protect itself so it armours up and will tighten to restrict the movements that are hurting it, and thus begins a vicious circle that usually ends up with a chronic condition that causes a lot of unnecessary suffering.
Learning how to read the signs and knowing how to interpret them is vital for us to be able to take responsibility for our own health. It’s not rocket science but does require us to make a conscious effort to listen to our body and become more aware of the trials and tribulations that we put it through. In the next article we will begin to look at some of the ways that our body uses to communicate with us – once we learn to listen and understand we can start rebuilding the relationship with our long suffering body!
(Now see Understanding physical stress Part 2)