The Pain of Changing Negative Patterns and Experiences

Doing good for yourself hurts.  We’re talking specifically about the discomfort involved with undoing bad habits and changing patterns of behavior for the better.  This kind of pain is familiar to those of us with a conscious movement practice like yoga, pilates or dance.  When the goal is to have focus, be aware of the processes of what’s going on in the body and change “bad” habits for better ones (Note: What is “bad” and what is “good” changes depending on the situation and individual.  That’s another post) one is bound to confront feelings of frustrations and a myriad of unpleasant physical sensations.

Sounds like it sucks, right? This is one reason why we lose motivation so easily to continue to make good changes, live better/more conscious lives, stick to New Year’s resolutions….
So why do something that hurts or feels bad?  If you’re clear on your intentions and what your goals are then you can learn to use these sensations as indicators for how the process is going.  A great example is avoidance behavior.  Sometimes our instinct to avoid pain can keep us stuck in a rut.  We can only change for the better if we are willing to look at and sit with whatever it is we need to change and move past.  This process is the same for the emotional over-eater, the alcoholic driven to numb emotional pain, the one who is okay with limping and favoring one leg in hopes that an injury will eventually sort itself out, one who doesn’t like the way “certain movements” feel and will instead accept other physical limitations, and so on…

Mel (and many others) can easily relate to this difficult process when she battles depression.  Mel has a history of clinical depression throughout college. It was during that time that she learned how to mitigate much of the physical and emotional ramifications of coping with the sense of inertia and anxiety that can characterize depression for some.  (We will not be discussing the chemical imbalances in the brain often responsible for the biochemical causes of Depression.  It’s too complicated a subject for this post, although, much of what is discussed here can be applied to the neuroscience.  For the sake of keeping this not novel-length we’re skipping it).  The physical sense of heaviness and the emotional feeling of hopelessness was often so overwhelming. But Mel noticed that physical activity was often helpful and in fact could even prevent an oncoming cycle. Much of this awareness has come from a deep yoga practice (see, yoga CAN help you!). She noticed when an episode, which can last many weeks, started to rear its ugly head and forced herself into activity.  Depression, once it has its sticky, dark grip on a person can feel impossible to shake and if nothing is done can get progressively worse as time passes.  Winter was always a particularly hard time, but Mel realized that once the gloomy feelings began to creep up that she had to act fast if there was any hope of mitigating the negative experience and maybe even shake it off completely.

Mel shares: “It took a lot of discipline.  The second I could identify what was going as something beyond the normal stress we all experience in college I knew I had to act fast.  I didn’t want to.  I didn’t always like it.  But I had seen the other side of letting the depression take over and knew how much worse it could get.  I spoke to therapists and had other coping methods in place, but physical activity was key FOR ME.  So I would force myself to run, walk or crawl.  Sometimes it really felt like all I could do was crawl!  But I did it.  It felt fighting for my life; it was so painful.  Despite that, I knew in those moments that I was taking control while I still had it in me to do.  I knew I was changing my chemistry, my outlook and my entire sense of feeling victimized.  Through movement, of any kind, I found power.  Even now, although my depression is nowhere near as bad, I can feel when emotions are starting to overwhelm me.  One of the things I force myself to do is workout as hard as I can.”

This pretty looking shit takes hard work.

As you know, we believe that there are (at least) 3 bodies:  the physical, the emotional and the mental.  They are inextricably connected; in fact are 1.  Whatever is going on in one will affect the others.  Mel continues, “Sometimes it’s weights, it’s plyo or it’s yoga.  But I get moving and it’s in those moments when emotionally I don’t want to move that I know I HAVE TO.”  That’s a moment when one uses the sensations as indicators for change.  “As long as I know I’m not damaging my physical body, the more I don’t want to do it the harder I work myself.  There have been moments when one more burpee makes me feel like crying.  Not because of the physical demand.  I could be working well below my endurance level.  But it’s the fight to shift my energies that hurts so much.  Trust me; I’ve cried through the burpees.  It’s at the apex of that pain that I’m aware that in this moment I make a change for the better.  Often, after pushing past the discomfort there is a sense of relief, accomplishment and the black cloud starts to lift.  It’s an incredibly difficult, but worthy undertaking.  There are many who will know what I’m talking about.”

The above process shows what it is to use awareness of all 3 bodies and gather valuable information.  Taking the signals out of the “good” or “bad” categories can be helfpul.  For instance, one may feel the sensations of despair in the body as pain and think, “Oh no.  I can’t move.  It’ll hurt too much and maybe damage myself.”  This is an example of the emotional body dominating the physical and mental bodies in an unhealthy imbalance (this language may not sound familiar compared to previous posts, but this is the same thing as saying that this is an example of the limbic system overriding the pre-frontal cortex in regards to choices for body movement).  It’s precisely in that moment when an individual can shift energies and strike a balance again.  One can take the opportunity to change how the physical body responds to difficult emotions.  We’ve discussed this before in other posts about confronting fear or difficult relationships.  The more control and awareness you have over the complex system of the human experience as expressed on these 3 levels the better the chances you have at making good choices…even when it hurts.

The concept of using physical movement or exercise is not new, particularly in this therapeutic context.  There are many teachers, therapists and scientific studies that speak about the benefits.  Take a look at Movement Efficiency Training, which incorporates emotional states to optimize movement ability.  You can take a look at this line of studies about exercise and depression along with several studies from Harvard, which try to be as exhaustive with variables, causation and validity as possible.

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