I hope this newsletter/blog post finds you all well. That despite the negatives that we have all faced for 2021 we can take the time to breathe, reassess, and organize ourselves to create a better version of mental or physical health for ourselves.
If you’ve been following along, or if this is your first time reviewing one of my newsletter/blog posts, you’ll notice I try to break apart topics into mental or physical health. It’s not particularly surprising for anyone to assume a physical therapist is going to write about physical health but mental health? Why? This may be the thought process one might have if they’re new to the concepts of physical rehabilitation. But many of my clients come to realize how much mental health plays a role in physical well-being.
Let’s look at the start of any physical therapist-to-client relationship. You have an injury or pain that has increased to the point that it affects a good percentage of your day. This isn’t a small paper-cut reminder. It's now more like that toe you stubbed on the coffee table just perfectly that you feel it every time you climb stairs.
That wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t commute to work or live in that three-floor walkup. Minor pain can develop into inconvenience and then to a nagging and highly compensated movement pattern. This pain has traveled from minor physical pain to nagging psychological pain that affects your daily thought process of how much of a disdain of stairs you’ve developed. From this disdain comes avoidance of stairs, weakness, and or compensated movement to climb stairs. Now the mental and physical health paradigms are crossing over each other and you’re finding other discomforts that you can attribute to compensations.
So what am I rambling on about? I wanted to spend this month’s post highlighting the reality that mental and physical health go hand in hand. One does not always precede the other. I have found mental and physical stressors can arise at their own independent origins, proceeding along a parallel path that will often diverge into crossing over paths. These paths can cross over more frequently the longer we live with the physical pain and mental stressors. To the point that they can create feelings of cause and effect, even though at its root the two pains are independent in origin.
Think of the toe pain and the avoidance of things that make that pain worse. Now think of someone who is commuting to a job they hate, or you’re in school and you’re playing a sport you’ve been forced to play, or a piano lesson you never wanted to take. Imagine you’re just walking to something that gives you absolutely anxiety because you’ve been on Zoom life for the last year and now you have to actually physically socialize with people. Take these examples of mental stress and slide this toe pain that seems to amplify every time you go to meet this mental stressor. Now our worlds of mental and physical health are intertwined and our sensitivity is heightened toward walking at all.
Does this sound unlikely to happen? Unfortunately, it isn’t at all. Because if we get enough mental negative information mixed with enough negative physical information then both our cups for mental and physical tolerance overflow.
Here is where the concept of pain science enters the picture. We should identify our stressors both mental and physical when we are approaching long-standing physical pain. This physical pain has become embedded into your reflexive reaction to the varying dynamics of your day. With chronic pain, it is important to identify what physically causes your pain but also what impedes you from preventing pain, and what impedes you from reducing your pain. Ice, heat, Advil, Tylenol, Alleve, and muscle ointments are all things to reduce your pain but they do not stop it from happening again? How much time isn’t spent rebuilding our body to accept movement with less pain? If the other life stressors aren’t managed well then the time to improve yourself will not happen. Work, family, etc. can get in the way of your own health. It takes as much exercise to manage and organize those mental stressors so that time is left weekly to make a better version of yourself. 15 minutes of physical work to improve your body daily is a small investment that has been shown to increase life expectancy by three years and cut the risk of death by 14% (BBC News) Then 15 minutes similarly daily to identify, organize and eliminate your mental stressors is also a worthwhile mental exercise (Journal of Positive Psychology Research).
The mental and physical health advice for this month comes as one whole exercise. What I have learned over the years since becoming a Certified Schroth Scoliosis Physical Therapist is to take more value in how much time we spend breathing. There is an incredible amount of clarity gained from slowing down your breathing and paying attention to how your body is reacting to your movement, lack of movement, and the environment around your body.
For this reason, the exercise is to sit and breathe with intention and observation at least once a day. Take a 5-minute break in a good stable posture. Set your phone timer when you’re ready to begin. Just 5 minutes.
Seated is preferred. Feet on the floor. Back erect. Arms relaxed at your sides. You can close your eyes, but it’s okay if you cannot because you’re outside or at your desk and you don’t want to look like you’ve fallen asleep.
The important part here, after establishing your posture, is to allow air to gradually enter your nose, down into your lungs. Let the air fill up like it's a tank of water. Filling up the lower part of your lungs and gradually filling up to the top of your lungs. Feel the max amount of air fill in and then slowly allow the air to leave via your mouth. Repeat this process three times just focusing on the three seconds of inward and outward breathing.
After your three breaths continue this paced breathing but now think about what you’re feeling from head to toe. The weight of your head, how the head sits on your neck, how your neck is balancing on top of your shoulders. How are those shoulders? Are they in your neck or draping down your back? Where you’re mid-back and lower back? Are they stacked on top of each other? Does your pelvis feel like it's evenly feeling the weight on both sides? Do your feet feel flat on the ground or are they dropping out to the outside of your feet?
Continue the above sequence till your timer is up. Every week you’re able to stick to at least 3/7 days and advance your breathing time by 2.5 minutes till you get to 15minutes. You can go further but this is the long road. No rush. This is basic physical and mental awareness. If you can do this seated once a day you can begin to work on longer periods of breathing focus. If you take the lesson further you can begin to use breathing as a way to refocus yourself when you’re at a peak of mental stress. That line at the supermarket, traffic on the highway, packed subway car? Slow your breath down, or better yet stop holding your breath and gradually let air in! When tasks seem too difficult to take on. When your physical or mental balance is tested. This is the time I ask you to breathe.
Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones.