Knowledge is Power
Pain. I know it well. For me it started in my twenties as a manageable irritation in the backgound of my life. By my early forties it had morphed into an all-consuming nightmare. I felt helpless, useless and unable to function. It was so awful that at times it made me wish my life away.
I was in constant, agonising and debilitating pain. My knowledge of pilates, exercise and especially yoga were of help - but just not enough. A respected chronic pain specialist told me that my nervous system was permanently damaged, nothing further could be done to help me and I should begin to use a wheelchair.
But I turned it round. Yes, ME. I was the only one who could. I didn't do it alone, of course. I had help from some wonderful teachers. Some, I interacted with in person, others I met through their work and writing. I'm sharing with you the books that helped me layer up the knowledge, understanding, confidence and experience that allowed me to turn my life around.
Here are the first 5 - I'll follow up with another 5 next time.
#1: Somatics - reawakening the mind's control of movement, flexibility and health, Thomas Hanna
Reading this book was the beginning of getting better. I had never heard of Somatics and stumbled upon it on YouTube. After five minutes of doing a somatic movement clip I found, incredibly, I experienced almost instant relief from the worst of the biting pain in my back. It wasn't a miracle recovery, you undestand! Yet this was something else - I had just got to a place nothing else had ever been able to access! Maybe the pain specialist was wrong? I had to find out more.
I ordered Hanna's book and devoured it from cover to cover. Though I had an exercise-y background, this was unlike anything I'd ever read. It was a different kind of movement. It seemed to have something to do with feelings and emotions. It was about the mind, body and whole person. It was about responses to stress, unconscious patterns, and being stuck in habits. It was about the nervous system and brain, rather than muscle, joints and bones. It was about humans as 'somas' - living breathing, thinking, sensing, feeling, moving, responding, adapting beings - experiencing the body from within. It was a revelation.
The photos in the book are not the greatest, but the text - well - it changed my life and this is now my work. That's another story, though.
#2: Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky
Thomas Hanna's book triggered my interested in stress and its effects on the body, which brings me to Robert Sapolksy's work. I can not imagine a more comprehensive guide to the phenomenon of stress. It's a rocking good read - brought to life with great stories, anecdotes and humourous asides. (If you like to be read to - even better! Robert Sapolksy himself narrates the Audible version and he is a very engaging speaker.)
The very same biological cascade that drives a lion to run after its meal or a zebra to run for its life is triggered when we have stressful thoughts; "For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about short term crisis... When we sit around and worry about stressful things - we turn on the same physiological responses - but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically."
It is well known that stress affects the pain experience, so it is in our interests to know it and manage it. Not only do you get cutting edge research in this book, but also a comprehesive guide to coping.
#3: Explain Pain, David Butler and Lorimer Moseley
The must have guide to how pain works and the factors that influence the pain experience. I was once handed a self-help book on chronic pain and it junked it as it was as dull as ditchwater. Conversely, this book is never dull and neither is it patronising (as I have found some materials aimed at the pain sufferer to be.)
Far from being a fatiguing monolith of text, the layout is spacious and punctuated with unique illustrations that are unusual, illuminating and edifying. It is written for both clinicians and patients and is packed with useful golden nuggets of information delivered in straightforward language. I found it intriguing - exciting, even. It opened up a new world for me which I am still discovering.
Now, even if the science of pain is not your thing, you can't help but emerge a little wiser and a bit more informed after reading this book. It's pricey, but a useful one to keep on your shelf. Whenever you have a setback you can remind yourself how pain works, and rationalise why you might be experiencing a flare up and what you can do about it.
#4: Mindfulness in 8 Weeks, Michael Chaskalon
The best thing about this book is the fact that it is accompanied by quality audio practice material. It is a stand-alone 8 week course in mindfulness practices that you can do by yourself. Though I would always recommend doing a mindfulness course with a group, sometimes it is simply not possible. Even if you are experienced in the art of mindfulness, it is useful to have access to purposefully, wisely, helpfully and intelligently narrated audio materials such as these.
A wealth of scientific literature and research exists out there to attest to the beneficial effects of mindfulness. It is almost too simple - coming back to the breath and focussing awareness on the body. The more difficult bit is that it has be be directly experienced and repeated regularly. When you are sensing your breath in your nostrils and the noticing the rise and fall of your belly, it's harder to ruminate on other things. Michael gets the pace just right and he narrates in a way that is simple and satisfying, acknowledging that your mind will wander- this is ok.
There is a type of mindfulness practice called 'body scanning', which involves taking awareness throughout the whole body and paying attention to the sensations in each part. I doubted at first that focusing on a body in pain could be of any use. However, I have found that when I apply the spotlight of my awareness to the lesser-noticed parts, non-painful and neutral areas in order to sense and notice what they feel like - I actually feel pleasant sensations and if pain or discomfort is present elsewhere it often fades.
#5: The Brain That changes Itself, Norman Doidge
Well, the title says it all. YOUR BRAIN CAN CHANGE! We live in an age where neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to adapt - is on the verge of becoming a household word. It used to be thought that the brain developed during critical periods in childhood and then ceased to produce new cells in adult life. It is now known that the brain can reorganize itself throughout a lifetime, both physically and functionally.
'Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science' is the book's sub-heading, and that is what it delivers. It is a powerful and uplifting read that at the very least will have you entertaining the possibility of being able to influence your own brain for the better. It is known that pain is an output of the brain. (This does NOT mean that we are making it up!! Pain is very, very real - as real as the visual world around you, which is also an output of the brain.) The gift in this paradox is that we can exert a certain amount of influence over the output of our brains, as is shown chapter after a chapter in this book.
How might YOU be able to change your experience of pain? You will no doubt get some ideas from this read. Even more if you follow up with the sequel, The Brain's Way of Healing.
Over to you!
Do you know any of these titles? What have you read that has helped you deal with, understand or dampen your pain? Are there any other non-fiction books you would recommend for people with issues of persistent pain? How about fiction - what lifts your spirits? Please leave your comments and suggestions in the Yoocan chatrooms!