This is a three-part series about the relationship between stress and chronic pain.
People rarely make the connection between their levels of stress and their levels of pain. Last night I got to make that connection, first-hand.
I watched a movie called FREE SOLO, which I had seen before (and wrote a blog about). It features a guy named Alex Honnold who climbs up a 3000-foot granite cliff (“El Capitan”) in Yosemite National Park with no ropes or safety equipment. Everyone I know who has seen it, agrees that it’s a terrifying movie to watch, even when you know the outcome. When I started watching it around 7PM I felt fine. By the time I finished watching the movie, my shoulders were in so much pain, I couldn’t even hold my arm up high enough to drink a glass of water.
If you want to get a brief taste of what I’m talking about here’s a link to the 2-minute trailer.
Research tells us that people are affected by stress differently. And usually this means there’s one particular area of the body that’s more vulnerable to stress. For me it’s muscle tension, particularly in my shoulders and neck. Before I started doing yoga on a regular basis, after a stressful period in my life, my shoulder muscles would just lock up for days, and sometimes I’d be incapacitated with intense pain for up to a week.
I apparently inherited this vulnerability from my mother. She had the same problem but never discovered yoga. In addition to taking all kinds of pills for her chronic back pain, wearing a neck brace, and even getting desensitizing allergy shots weekly, at one point after years of chronic pain, one of her many doctors suggested she have her gall bladder removed in hopes that that would relieve her suffering. It worked for about 3 months, and then her pain came screaming back. The short-term relief was probably due to the placebo effect. She believed it would work and for 3 happy months, it did.
Everybody seems to have an area of the body that acts as a storehouse for stress. For my mother it was her upper back and neck. For others it might be the gut (Irritable bowel syndrome), the lower back, (low back pain) the head (migraine headaches) or the jaw (TMJ) just to name a FEW areas of the body adversely affected by stress. When I don’t do any yoga for as little as a week, I start to experience pain, usually, but not always, in my shoulders. If I were to continue NOT doing yoga, I believe this pain would become chronic, like it did for my mother.
All this past week, my shoulders were giving me little warning signs (just occasional short bursts of pain) that I ignored. People often cover up their warning signs of stress with over-the-counter medications. I had taken a couple of ibuprofen on several occasions, instead of doing yoga. I chalk up my lack of stretching these past few weeks to the rather lame excuse of having to go from doing yoga regularly at the gym before the pandemic, to TRYING to do it online after the Covid-19 pandemic.
But yesterday I had gone swimming at an outdoor pool, so usually just some vigorous exercise, particularly where it involves shoulder movement is enough to ward off upper back pain. But that exercise didn’t account for the dramatic effect that watching Alex Honnold’s stressful climb would have on my nervous system and consequently my body. By the end of the movie, my upper arms just couldn’t be moved without excruciating pain.
It was already too late to do preventive stress management in the form of yoga, but it also inspired me to sign up for an online yoga class with a teacher I love, so that merely watching a movie, doesn’t incapacitate me again. And guess what? My online class begins in 30 minutes. So I need to stop proof-reading this blog, and get on my yoga outfit!
In the next installment, we’ll talk about the possible defect in Alex Honnold’s brain that allows him to do “free soloing” without experiencing deleterious levels of stress. In part 3 we’ll talk about the use of mindfulness meditation to deal with and prevent chronic pain.