On Actually Putting Things Into Practice

I’ve realized some things about myself when I’m dealing with pain of all sorts. Mental, physical, emotional.

When I deal with pain, I think a lot about interventions to fix it, mostly because I really like to fix things right away. Most thoughts involve practicing good belly breathing, meditation, movement, and some journaling. These help with both mental and physical issues. However, I’ve noticed that I tend not to actually do those things until my pain gets bad enough that it upsets me. Thankfully, I’ve noticed that acknowledging my privileges (ex. being able to walk — there’s a few guys at the gym with wheelchairs and leg braces/canes) and viewing my suffering in a realistic frame (ex. this groin pain isn’t going to last forever) helps me ease that initial upset feeling.

But my issue is this — why don’t I just do these things when I’m feeling pretty good, or at the very least, ok? This week I haven’t been sleeping well, and that combined with the bad weather is definitely affecting my mood and my ability to recover after my workouts. My groin pain is really frustrating today, and last night I dealt with some emotional issues with my mom where I had to face some startling and frustrating truths. It took me until this point to say, hey, there is something wrong. It’s time to actually do some more moving, maybe take a nap, practice some breathing, and take care of myself.

I tend to overly focus on the exact point of pain without thinking about the root cause. While I can intellectually assess my body and come up with various reasons and solutions, painful physical situations usually end up invoking an emotional response that gets in the way of my progress. I have learned to always assess injuries in relation to the whole body, and while my rehab plan involves everything from my body’s rotational abilities, balance, core work, hips, ankles, thoracic spine… I have a very unhealthy focus on the exact area of pain. Doing exercises with the cables (even upper body) actually causes me the worst pain, which I did a lot of yesterday. I was upset the entire time, constantly thinking about the pain, and jabbing my thumb into my psoas way too much to try and relieve it. I want to change that, and I told myself that while I will do some stretching for the next few days, I want to focus on stretching away from the exact area of pain — so more in the glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, feet. And obviously I will still do my strengthening exercises, but I want to work on the mind-muscle connection when it comes to stretching/relaxing the muscles.

They say pain is all in the head. It’s actually very true. Your pain is modulated by your nerves and brain, and all the signals are received, processed and sent out by the brain. Now, when I say pain in this piece, I do want to specify that I’m not feeling any sort of shooting, burning, truly painful pain. But I still want to refer to it as pain because it’s a bit complex to explain what I mean every time. It’s the kind of thing that is very present in all my movements, even sitting and driving, so it may be subtle but it’s a bit more constant — and by bringing attention to it, I notice that it gets worse. When I’m distracted and having a good conversation with coworkers or clients, I’ll come back to these thoughts 5 minutes later and be impressed that the pain disappeared for that time. So I know precisely what I have to work on — breathing, distraction, and things that I enjoy. And not trying to fix everything immediately.

It’s very interesting. I’m a very big fan of “pre-hab” with my athletes to prevent injuries from happening instead of waiting until they actually do — at the very least, coming to me when they feel some weird soreness or something before it gets worse. Yet I avoid it on my own, even though I like to pretend I’m doing it — my intent isn’t there. I know that when I’m feeling good, I ease off the rehab and meditation because it truly feels burdensome sometimes. But that results in a slow decrease in my progress, and then I get to a low point where I realize I need to take care of myself again. I always say that I’m pretty good at assessing situations and understanding what I need to do, and I try to tell myself that it’s enough. However, I need to do more because it truly can get in the way of my happiness at times.

One of my tattoos is to commemorate my encounter with chronic pain that was just as much a mental struggle as it was physical. It was a reminder that sometimes life gets better, but sometimes it gets worse, and that’s okay. However, I started to sit back more and simply accept the good and bad changes. And I mean, the ability to accept changes and weird situations is definitely a good skill to have. But I realize I don’t want it to be the only one. I want to have the energy, the drive and the commitment to make my life better. There was a time in Utah when I knew that two very tough weeks were ahead — lots of hours, very little pay, but plenty of lessons to be learned. I made sure to spend at least 5 minutes every morning meditating. It was wonderful and definitely saved my butt that week. I want to do more of that.

A big reason that I haven’t wanted to commit to things like meditation and movement is that I have this huge urge to get to grad school now and avoid things that are going on. I don’t want to wait, I really don’t want to spend time at home without friends, that kind of thing. And it’s funny because I truly do believe seasons of waiting are really good for the soul. Well, painful, but good in the end. But I’m having trouble actually putting that into practice. I definitely will write something about this soon because it’s been an interesting few months living at home (okay, it’s actually been 6 months. WOW!).

See, my issue is actually putting things into practice! I know things about myself. I know my personal pain “triggers”. I know how I react, and I know self-care methods that I need to perform more, not just when I hit a low point. Knowing them is one thing, and I’m grateful I’ve gotten to this level of more awareness (of course, there’s still more to learn), but now it’s time for me to take the next step and really take care of myself.

Sleep. Movement. Happy things. Reading. Writing. Running (I’ve gotten into this lately, once the rain eases up I definitely want to do this at least 2x a week and get a solid, not stupidly complicated gym routine down). Friendship bracelets (maybe I’ll actually make them for friends like you’re supposed to). Breathing deeply. Eating good food (I really miss cheese right now but I like that my stomach feels good). Drinking cold water. There’s a lot of stuff that makes me…content, not happy. Happiness is more fleeting to me, so I want to spend more time appreciating the good things even when there are bad things going on. Now that my schedule has eased up, I want to focus on these things and not become lazy.

All this means is taking more responsibility, and taking care of me so I can take care of others to the best of my abilities. It doesn’t require a huge, terrifying commitment to do all of these things every single day. It is little steps, the same way that slow, controlled weight loss is the trick to sustainability of that weight loss and a sound mind. Your practice of meditation or movement should be sustainable and consistent before anything else, even if it’s just 5 minutes a day. Take it slow, be proud of yourself, and most importantly…just go out there and do it.

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Jen Xu

Jen Xu

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Athletic trainer, PhD student, coffee lover. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.