Musings, deep thoughts, actual facts, and the like…
In early June I went to Boston for a 4-day intensive course in oncology massage – that is, massage specially tuned to the particular needs of cancer patients.
We were a group of 17 students and two instructors. Early on the first day, one of the instructors stood at an easel, and asked us to think of someone in our own lives who has, or has had, cancer – because everybody, it seems, knows somebody with this disease, and for many of us that was what motivated us to take the class in the first place.
In my last essay, I posited that evolution shaped the human body and mind so that we are beautifully adapted to the world of 5000 years ago, but perhaps poorly suited to the world of today. (It may be useful to read the first two paragraphs of that essay, to flesh out the premise with a few specifics.) Here I’d like to take that idea up again from a different angle.
We humans evolved over millions of years, via an almost unimaginably slow process. Anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly 300,000 years, and behaviorally modern humans (that is, humans who used language, rudimentary technology, symbolic ornamentation, etc.) came along about 40,000 years ago. Presumably our evolution continues even today, but given how slowly it goes, it feels safe to say that our species has been largely stable for the last several thousand years.
It’s February, and the media is full of headlines like, “Your New Year’s Resolution Didn’t Work, Now What?” The emphasis of these pieces almost always lands on goals, things to achieve or attain, with the implication that you’re a failure if you don’t reach your goal, and a success if you do.
I find this paradigm problematic at best. Say you achieve your goal: congratulations! Except now you have to set a new goal, because there’s no fade-to-black at your moment of victory.
I spend a lot of time these days talking about fascia. I study fascia, I work with fascia, I am a big ol’ fascia geek, and I could make the argument that your fascia is the most important system in your body. Yet four years ago I had never heard of the stuff, and even three years ago – when I was about to enter massage school, and had already been seeing a myofascial release (MFR) therapist for six months – I had only the vaguest understanding of it.
Not long ago, my nine-year-old son tried roller-blading for the first time, with some friends. He had a blast, and although he did fall down a lot he managed to avoid any serious injuries. But that night, he complained that his wrists really hurt – because every time he’d fallen, he’d caught himself on his hands, his wrists bending back and absorbing the impact.
It was clear that nothing was broken or even sprained, but also clear that he’d strained both wrist joints.
I’ll set the scene: a client comes to see me, complaining of chronic pain. For the sake of specifics, let’s say it’s neck pain, though the broad strokes of what I’m describing would apply to chronic pain anywhere in the body.
This pain, my client says, has built up gradually over the past several years. Her neck muscles have been tight for as long as she can remember, but lately the tension has worsened to the point that she gets frequent headaches and can barely turn her head.
One of the questions I hear most often from my clients is, “Is this normal?” They come to the question by many routes. Popular lead-ins include “My [pick a body part] is so tense,” or “It hurts when I [choose a simple action],” not to mention, “So many months after my [injury, surgery, trauma, etc.] I’m still in pain…” But I also hear, “My [choose a joint] is bendier than most other people’s,” and “I feel tingling in my [body part]” a lot.
The term may not be familiar to you, but you already know about your sympathetic nervous system. At its most basic, it’s what causes your “fight or flight” response to danger: adrenaline floods your body, your heart and respiratory rates both speed up, and your brain causes some blood vessels to constrict while others dilate, so that your skeletal muscles have an increased blood supply. Assuming the danger you’ve perceived is a real physical threat, your sympathetic nervous system is exactly what you need to either fight for your life or run for it.
Well, to start with, I’ve always been a sucker for wordplay.
But more importantly, that one (made-up) word encapsulates the journey I’ve been on for years now, and the one I hope to bring clients on.
I spent most of my life living primarily in my head. I considered my brain to be what defined me, and my body was like my brain’s troublesome sidekick: always there, often demanding, but more of a distraction than a true point of focus.