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From Falling Down a Mountain to Skiing Down a Mountain. A story of luck and Science that works.

Let’s start with the 3 cornerstones of pain, that we should always remember:


1.     Pain is protective and enables tissue healing.

2.     Persistent pain is over-protective and delays or prevents healing. Due to neuroplasticity, it can be reversed.

3.     There is no such thing as a pain that has a single cause. Many factors influence pain.

 

I am the luckiest person imaginable, because I have just been skiing in Italy. I was not conscious of how momentous this trip actually was, until every person I told where I had been, gave me the same response: “wow, can you actually ski? Are you all better?” and so, I decided to write this blog today on exactly this subject, because there is so much in this question that is helpful to understand. Bear with me, this may take a bit of explaining, but your investment of time in reading will provide a great return for you, especially if you are struggling with any pain or injury. It will also give you a return on your time investment if you are aging and feeling negative about that. (I’m especially focused on giving you a return on your time investment because as William Penn says: “Time is what we want most but what we use worst” more on this in another blog)

 

I am surprised by the question I keep getting asked, because I absolutely know that within seconds of me falling off Cathedral Peak 2 years ago, my whole system was dedicated to healing the damage. Every part of my body and mind had been conscripted to the task of restoring my wholeness. My body, just like yours is infinitely intelligent and is a healing machine. My brain, like yours is programmed to keep me alive and so it produces all the adjustments and changes required to ensure survival. I was in the powerful position of knowing this in every fiber of my being and so I was at a remarkable advantage right from the start. I trusted my body and my brain to get me back to my life. I think that I was able to reverse engineer my healing because of what I know about pain, healing and the brain’s protective mechanisms and I want you to have all the information that I used to help me, so that whatever challenges you are facing, can be alleviated, using it.

 

I know that primarily pain is protective. It enables tissue healing. As soon as I regained consciousness on the side of the mountain, I was aware that my muscles had gone into protective spasm and their strength had been inhibited in order to prevent further damage, and so that I didn’t move. I probably would have got up and tried to walk, if I could have, but my protective system didn’t allow it. I know that the body can heal anything, but it does the healing in its own time frame and there is no way to speed that up.

 

I knew my fractures would take 3 months before they could take my body weight. I knew my bones would take a further 3 months to heal fully and I knew that nerves would be very slow to heal. I knew rest was what was required. I knew I had to exercise within the constraints of the rest, to maintain my muscle strength and flexibility as best I could and to keep my brain and my body “talking to each other”.

 

My brain lost position sense of my left side. The brain is like an avatar, using the homonculus or motor sensory cortex to enable movement of all the body parts. When body parts are not moving or are injured, the picture the brain has of them becomes smudged and this disables smooth, coordinated movement from occurring. It took a lot of training and deliberate movement practice to restore the clear, accurate picture of my whole body in my homonculus. I did off road hiking, step climbing without looking, grid classes, kick boxing, Zumba dancing, yoga and much more, to retrain this function and proprioception. I literally hopped and skipped, and box jumped for months.

 

I had endless pain, and I used medication in the wisest way I could, to manage it. Nights were the worst, when there was less chance of distracting my brain from the pain. I knew the pain was over-protective, especially when it occurred at night. I knew it would delay my healing if I allowed it to and I also knew if I didn’t sleep, I wouldn’t heal. I tried my best to find the sweet spot between over using pain pills and being stoic and not using them. I am very weary of morphine-based pain medication, but it does have a place. I always erred on the side of over caution, rather than allowing a habit to form, which I well knew would compound my problems. I didn’t worry too much about the pain, I focused on the tissue healing which I knew was happening. I focused on supporting my healing in every way I could with movement, rest, a healthy microbiome, a positive mindset and a clear vision about where I wanted to get to. I deliberately trusted that in time, my brain would drop the need to over protect me and would loosen the guard rails. That’s exactly what happened.

 

I knew regarding the pain I experienced that, my accident and the resultant tissue damage weren’t the only cause of the pain I experienced. I had to explore far and wide in my mind and body in order to work with my pain. I knew that fear, anxiety, frustration and feeling isolated were contributing causes. I was well aware that the grapple to find my new identity in this new state, was contributing to the pain. I felt panic about taking advantage of the life I had left. I felt fear that I wasn’t doing enough, given the fact that against the odds, my life had not ended. I worried that I would someday have regrets about the choices I had made in the aftermath and frustration with the mundane aspects of rehabilitation and normal living, which seemed wasteful to my anxious mind. These factors all made pain a sensible response from my brain in its survival programmed function. I did my best to process these anxieties with the expert help of a psychologist. I needed to confront my fears head on, but work with the trauma in titrated doses. Had I ignored or avoided my fears, they would have catastrophized in the dark recesses of my mind.

 

The one thing that has really come home for me two years down the line is that the way we see ourselves is the deciding factor in how we heal, age, live. When I could restore my internal sense of myself as an able bodied, strong, fit, agile person, I could find the way to create that in my body.

 

As I took to the ski slopes, I had many demons to slay. There were many nights on my trip, when I skied ‘all night long’ in my sleep. In my unconsciousness, I was trying to take the weight on my downhill ski, fearlessly and fully, even though my brain was doing everything it could to avoid taking my weight on my left foot. I was trying to persuade my brain to allow my body to lean out of the slope and face down the mountain. It felt totally counterintuitive to my unconscious, especially after my experience of falling forward into the abyss. I had to grapple to work out how to do that when my protective mechanisms wanted me to lean into the slope and stay “safe”. (If you haven’t skied much, you may not know that the best way to stay safe is to lean away from the slope, leaning into the slope makes you fall).

 

It was on about day 4 of our trip, when I decided to stop striving and driving and trying to get it right. I just did as my friend-cum-ski-genius, who, after looking at a video of me skiing suggested I relax my knees. As I tried to integrate her advice, I realized that I needed to relax my whole body, especially my foot and it's toes, which I became aware, were rigidly clenched in my boot. My body felt a million times better when I could persuade it to relax.  Things slowly clicked into place. I can honestly say, I skied faster and better from then onwards and the joy factor compounded exponentially.

 

On the plane home, I was thinking about this. I watched the movie: “The Bucket List” and saw Morgan Freeman (Carter) ask Jack Nicholson (Edward), if he had experienced true joy in his life. I realized how much joy I had been able to experience on the beautiful, sun-dappled ski slopes of the Dolomites in fabulous Italy. I realized that aging happens in your head long before it happens in your body. Your over-protective brain starts over protecting you at every turn and limiting things to keep you safe. This makes you age. This harms rather than helps you! Your brain has “learnt” it's protection from every difficult, threatening, or painful experience you have had or internally experienced through what you have read about or heard. This data needs updating, because the amount of protection needed is usually inaccurate.

 

It's fascinating to see neuro and bio plasticity in action. It’s fun and so rewarding to work with your brain to try to over-ride hyper-protection and work with it constructively to dismantle it. I hope that by reading this, you will have access to your own over-ride button. Try it! Investigate it and see what is happening inside your brain. Most importantly, engage with it playfully!

 

There is so much more to share, so listen in and over time I’ll try my best to explain it all for you. The main thing is that I want you to have the tools and strategies available so you can: “age in reverse”, reclaim your joy and find your way to the wellbeing that’s possible and available for you. Please do share this with anyone who you know needs to know this!

 

Much love always,


Sue and the Team

 

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