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Movement is Medicine

It's a two way street: The mind controls the body - and the body controls the mind. Negative emotions played a role in my physical back pain. This is how I overcame.

woman standing on cliff raiser her hands
woman standing on cliff raiser her hands

Not a car “accident”

On September 11, 2017 after picking up my kids from school, we were hit by a car. I slammed on the brakes and swerved to avoid it as best I could, but it was too late. She slammed into us and I felt my body surge forward and snap back as we jolted to a stop. Immediately, my neck started piercing with pain. 14 years without a ticket or accident wiped out, along with my neck. (The kids were both safe in their car seat cocoons, thankfully.)

I was no stranger to pain. Though under age 40, I have diligently pushed through chronic neck and back pain for years, ebbing and flowing and exacerbated by carrying my two young kiddos around. Through diligent practice I learned to ignore the dull, throbbing sensation emanating from my lower back, and to whine about the pain in my neck when my kids climbed on me. What I didn’t learn was how to fix it.

it was as if this car accident was anything but. As though God was saying, “Aneela, quit complaining and make a move to improve.”

Making a caring move

So I did – starting with chiropractic work every other week and later incorporating a consistent gentle stretching & strengthening exercise routine. Both routines helped me build a practice of accountability and self care – more specifically they helped me leverage the fact that a medical professional was holding me accountable – to take care of myself.

All the time a person spends as wife, mother, entrepreneur, designer, friend, speaker, and more, takes time away from simply being yourself. And that, to me, is what self care is about: yourself, the “you” you are when you are all.by.your.self. It’s learning to master the time you spend on your own – and the conversations you have on your own. It’s the thoughts, feelings and actions that reverberate throughout the day that you will remember – and be remembered for. And, I will assure you, it’s easier said than done to master how thoughts affect everything else. But easier if you take it one by one, and I started with my back pain.

Listening to the back pain

My chiropractic appointments were more than just physical body adjustments. They were an opportunity to work on reconnecting my mind and body, which for so long were in miscommunication. My 40-minute sessions of mental and physical healing were guided by Dr. April, a chiropractor, who also gave me a safe space to share the depths of my anxiety, which often showed up at the peaks of my back pain. Dr. April was also using an ancient practice of “cupping” to help me release chronic pain and stress by improving blood flow. I’d finish these sessions with large black and blues in some areas of my back and not others – lining up to a T where the pain was emanating from.

I was finally making the connection that when my mind was restless, it traveled down my spine and wreaked havoc on my back.

My stretching & strengthening practice was also more than just focusing on the physical. In addition to realizing I had muscles I never knew existed, I realized what pain is: my mind signaling you to “watch out!” – the mind’s way of drawing attention to protect the body. I also realized I was incorrectly responding to the pain by thinking it meant by body was broken. Perceiving pain as damage, I limited my movement to activities that didn’t inflict pain. I restricted myself to reading to kids instead of playing horsey and to watching tv in the evening instead of going for a bike ride.

All this was to avoid pain that was still coming at me because physical pain is also mental, specifically, fueled by fearful – or angry – thinking. I don’t know why I didn’t figure out sooner that negative emotions played a role in my pain – as I’ve been on such high alert since childhood that my shoulders nearly touch my ears. But scientists have made the connection and proven that meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy can ease low back pain. In other words, proven mental health treatments for the MIND can improve your PHYSICAL well being. It’s a two way street: The mind can control the body – and the body can control the mind.

Finding THE medicine to control back pain

My daily stretching practice was reinforced by a mobile app of exercised, education and companion coach check-ins. I learned that I needed to retrain how my body – and mind – created and reacted to pain. It’s a cycle of my mind sending painful warning signals as it thinks about a never-ending-to-do-list that instigates paralysis: lying in bed scrolling instagram unproductively. To snap out of the cycle, I began practicing something new: when I felt pain, I stretched and MOVED those parts of my body. Movement turned the pain signal from alarm to calm. As I moved, the pain moved on.

“When I felt pain, I MOVED…

…and the pain moved on.”

My physical practice focused on:

  • side stretches
  • forward folds
  • lunges
  • squats
  • cat/cow
  • glute stretches
  • planks on all sides
  • ending with resting in child’s pose

The app gave positive encouragement in the form of animated stars – which my kids loved seeing pop on the screen. They motivated me by stretching with me to help me “get my stars.”

The program also motivated a domino effect of changes:

  • shifting my computer set up at work
  • practicing better posture
  • drinking more water
  • biking as a family

Beyond the physical, it was my coach, Spencer, that guided true results. First, Spencer reminded me that I need to define my WHY for this improvement for it to stick. My motivation began with my kids, but ended with knowing that the work I was doing today was making a better life for me tomorrow…and knowing that one day I’d feel more comfortable in my own skin. (The day is near, I feel it!)

Spencer also pushed me to identify the barriers to my progress. Hint: it was “lack of time,” which really translates to not making it a priority (or simply, laziness). But it was undeniable – the more I showed up for my routine, the more absent the pain.

The western world is finally coming around to what the East has known for centuries: the mind and body are one. I am coming around too, learning that movement is medicine for my mind and body.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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