Ongoing pain and illness are contractions—initially useful or purposeful contractions–that have become stuck. But no matter how stuck things feel, the distance between contraction and melting is slight. Under the right conditions, change can happen on a dime.
Practices That Invite Contraction
There are many influences on our bodies that we cannot control. But we can consciously practice attitudes and behaviors that cultivate contraction or fluidity, illness or wellness.
Which practices invite contraction?
1. Attitudes Towards Your Self, Your Body and Your Symptoms
Attitude is about how you treat yourself/your body. Attitude shows up in the internal “tone of voice” you use to speak to yourself, what you tell yourself, and how you treat your body and your symptoms.
Here are some attitudes that invite contraction:
- Impatience/pushing/efforting (We might say to ourselves: “Hurry up and get better!” or “I gotta fix this!”)
- Judgment/blaming/self-punishment (“what is wrong with me?” “I hate this headache!”)
- Disrespect, disregard (“I don’t have time for this!”)
- Dissociation, minimizing, numbing (“I am not going to feel this.”)
- Objectifying your body parts or your symptoms (“My body is so uncooperative!” or “My stomach is ruining my life!”)
- Turning illness or chronic pain into a static identity (ie.“I am chronically ill.” And sometimes when we say we have an illness (“I have fibromyalgia;” “I have IBS”) we are subtly telling ourselves we arethat illness.)
I want to say a little more about this specific attitude.
On one hand, it can be healing and liberating to claim an identity of “chronically ill” or “chemically sensitive,” etc. Owning chronic pain or illness as an identity can mean finally giving yourself permission to take your situation seriously, treat yourself with tenderness and care, seek out supportive community, and access dignity and resilience.
On the other hand, turning any aspect of our experience into an identity always runs the risk of inviting contraction and stagnation. So it’s good to hold your identities lightly. Give your living body room to breathe, and be willing to laugh at your ideas about yourself. Remember, you are a mystery. You are a profoundly fluid, changeable being.
It is a good idea to notice—with compassion—whenever you practice the above attitudes. Neutral awareness will allow these attitudes to loosen their grip on you, and become less automatic.
2. Telling Yourself Scary Stories
The stories we tell ourselves about our bodies and about reality, matter. They can shape the “matter” of our bodies. Unfortunately, many of us have internalized scary stories from our families and the media. We can scare ourselves by repeating stories like, “Oh, my heart is racing, I must be having a heart attack.” or, “Oh, my stomach hurts. What if it’s cancer? What if I am dying!”
Repeating scary stories to ourselves about specific parts of the body can cause us to contract and reduce the blood flow to these areas.
Do practices 1. and 2. sound familiar to you?
We become what we practice. The more we practice contraction producing attitudes and scary stories, the more we reinforce fear, pain, and powerlessness.
Here are some practices that invite melting:
1. Attitudes Towards Your Self, Your Body and Your Symptoms
- Patience and gentleness (“What do I need right now?”)
- Self-compassion (“Wow, this is really difficult for me.”)
- Respectful listening (“Hey stomach, I am listening; is there anything you want to tell me?”)
- Friendly collaboration (“Hi painful joints, what are you up to? How can I support you?”)
- Hold yourself (and your symptoms) lightly (“My body hurts, and it is a beautiful day.”)
- Playfulness/curiosity (You can bring the attitude of playful curiosity (as well as deep listening and patience) to TMJ pain, and start a playful dialogue: “What is it like being so clamped up, jaw?” You may unearth a long-buried time capsule of anger in your jaw. You may find this anger has been waiting months or decades for permission (from you!) or a safe environment to finally speak of an old injustice, or a violated boundary. Acknowledging and expressing that anger—playfully, or seriously—might soften or dissolve your TMJ symptoms.)
- Your body is an adventure (You can view your body as a moment to moment adventure. Notice how your pleasant and challenging sensations can stream and contract and change throughout the day. With an attitude of adventure and discovery, even familiar sensations of pain and illness can take you on healing journeys. I find gratitude is my ally here. Like many people, I deal with chronic ailments and pain on a regular basis. Sometimes I am bedridden or housebound for a day or two, and yet, my life feels sweet and full of surprises. I am grateful to be alive. Even being incapacitated can be an interesting adventure, if you permit yourself to approach it that way.)
2. Telling Yourself Comforting/Reassuring Stories
Sensations are not good or bad, they just are. So why not tell yourself reassuring stories about them?
Let me give you an example. I have food sensitivities that are tricky to manage. Sometimes I eat a food that I believe is safe for me, and my body reacts badly. Or I forget to check ingredients and accidentally eat something I am allergic to.
It happens. I get sick with severe stomach and/or intestinal pain, and full recovery can take two days. In the meantime I cannot eat or function well. This is obviously a situation I try to avoid, but sometimes I cannot.
When this happens, it is easy to get caught up in a vicious cycle of telling myself mean and scary stories that make me panic: “Oh that hurts! And the pain is probably going to get worse!”
Or I might worry, “I have important things to do, and I will not be able to do them!” “I am losing too much weight; my immune system will be compromised!” (My scary stories are usually punctuated by exclamation points.) “How will I get through the next couple of days?”
I also tell myself blaming and shaming stories: “I should have known better than to eat that! Why am I so stupid?” It is easy to endlessly, obsessively rehash what I “should” have done differently.
Telling myself such scary stories is cruel: I am already suffering, and here I am scolding and scaring myself. Perhaps my stomach responds to these stories by clenching even more.
What my body needs at times like these are comforting and reassuring stories. Stories that are merciful and forgiving: “Oh, stomach, I am so sorry you are hurting! I tried my best to avoid this, but it happened anyway. Or, “You poor thing! What do you need?” I can tell myself: “This is not forever; within two days I will feel ok.”
3. Giving Yourself a Steady Container
Giving yourself consistency and steadiness can soften contraction, and minimize pain and illness.
Once you know which self-care routines work for you, try to maintain them. For example, no matter what the latest dietary theory claims, if you get cramps every time you eat gluten, it is best to trust your body’s direct experience, and consistently avoid gluten.
When you suffer from painful or challenging symptoms, you need steadying practices to reassure you and help you feel safe in your body. You can do comforting things for yourself, like drinking chamomile, crying, bundling up in fuzzy blankets, or taking a bath.
I invite you to practice melting your contractions. Try out some of the above suggestions, and pay attention to which ones your body likes. Nurture your body by doing them, over and over again.
We become what we practice, so why not practice fluidity, self-compassion, options and agency?
Let me know how it goes…