I was not surprised when I saw a recent study showing a strong link between psychological stress and injury – stronger than many physical factors we would more readily attribute as primary causes.
The lack of presence
We now live in a world where the present occupies less and less space and thoughts of the past and future more and more. This leads to an unhealthy state of mind, which affects the body and its physical functions directly, where we essentially reject the present moment because we do not like it. We prefer what we used to have or used to be able to do or we cling to what we may become or what we hope to do some day. This frame of mind sends a powerful signal to your brain telling it that ‘I don’t like my life – turn it off already’. It is a state of perpetual stress where healing processes stop and the body does what it is told – extricates you as fast as possible from a life you clearly do not care to live. After all if you do not want to be in the present then you do not want to be anywhere. The past and future are products of the present,as Eckhart Tolle memorably summarised, in his book, ‘The Power of Now’. Every memory you carry was created in the present moment and every future situation will happen in the present. When we resist it, so the wisdom goes, we resist ‘what is’ and can trigger powerful autoimmune actions. Our bodies basically turn against themselves because resisting the present generally has a link to not liking yourself, where you are, and what you currently represent. Dare I call it self-hate? *
* And dare we remember how much our current technology pours fuel on this fire, always pulling us away from what is in front of us in favour of some bright red dot?
Your body – your healer
I have seen injuries heal, and read stories of similar accounts, where no intervention happened. The injured person simply decided to accept their situation or there situation changed to a better one. The eminent American neurosurgeon Jack Kruse puts it this way: ‘you cannot heal in the environment where you got sick’. Any kind of stress – psychological especially – turns off your repair and reproductive functions. This is akin to turning off the supply of adaptive energy. Suddenly any illness or injury can just waltz in and take over, even simple ones that your immune system can easily cope with. The immune system can very likely deal with pretty much everything – except the most lethal maladies and blunt force traumas – if only giventhe right circumstances. Once we are outside this ‘right’ this state we cannot heal, we cannot repair, we cannot improve. Injuries and ailments seem mysterious and we chase from one therapist or doctor to another or one drug store or pharmacy to the next, in search of a cure.
The most insidious aspect of this problem is that many people are in denial of the true root cause of the problem. Accepting a deep underlying unhappiness, or unwillingness to accept that your life is not what you want, can be very difficult to do for the ego. Denial can be much more comfortable. Much easier to find someone who can ‘fix us’ even if the key to unlocking the solution is likely right in your own hand. You just have to accept the situation at hand and work with it rather than struggle against it. Ok, so you can only run 7:30 minutes per kilometre without pain. Then that is what you do. ‘But, but…the runner in you will stammer…I used to run 4:30 min/km NO PROBLEM.’ These phrases belong nowhere in an athlete’s vocabulary. You should expunge them forcefully: ‘should have’, ‘could have’, ‘would have’, ‘must’ and ‘I could be IF’. No one cares, least of all reality. All that matters is the current situation. Your solutions lie in phrases like ‘I can’, ‘I will’ and ‘I am’. ‘I can walk up the stairs’, ‘I can squeeze a soft ball with my broken hand’, ‘I can run 200 metres in this particular pair of footwear down the road’. You accept your current limitations and you work from them instead of what you would like to be like or what you used to be able to do or what some guru, book, running magazine or ‘Science’ tells you is ‘the Way’.
The logic applies beyond running as well and in my experience most running injuries have little to do with overtraining from running itself. The correlation is weak. I myself got injured not when running the most. In fact I was injury free when I ran the most. But this was also the time when I was happiest, most fulfilled, with the clearest direction in life and the best environment for rest and recovery. In other words, I was injury free because my life was one of contentment and clarity. I had no resistance to the present moment and thus there was no pretext for my body to attack itself nor was there a constant shut-down of the enormous powers of repair and regeneration that we are all born with. I could afford plenty of mistakes if I wanted to make them – biomechanical, training, nutrition (although in fact, I did not make many then) – because my body had enough adaptive capacity to simply shrug it off. This is what philosopher Nassim Taleb calls ‘anti-fragile’ – a state where a biological organism gains from disorder. It is our natural state (although some like Jack Kruse prefer the term ‘metastability’ as superior, but that is a topic for another day) whereas the strangely common state we see today where people get ill after one exposure to cold weather or a few weeks of poor training is unnatural. It is the state of fragility and makes absolutely no sense when we consider ourselves as the product of relentless evolutionary processes that have honed our organism to survive where 99.9% of all other species have died out.
The environment comes first, always
There is a reason that optimising the environment around you is the most important thing you can do. More important than diet and much more important than exercise. If your body and mind sense that you live in a healthy space – physically and mentally – then your body will thrive. If it senses the opposite, you will struggle to survive. Mother Nature abides no passengers. Athletes require a state of thriving because we are asking our bodies to exceed their current boundaries and grow and adapt rapidly – often so swiftly that we pay today’s gains off future reserves. An athlete will not have it another way, of course.
Once you are trapped in the state of resistance you will seek more and more cures – often expensive ones – and you will seek to do more and more, being busier and busier. More mobility work, more strength work, more support. Or go see a new specialist with ‘better drills’ or ‘latest science’. You will see 3 different physiotherapists hoping one will find the answer. Once that fails you will see an osteopath, perhaps a chiropractor, perhaps a sports surgeon or an acupuncturist or a homeopath.
Two ways in the woods…
While each may well provide relevant information to make you more aware of what is stopping your from healing, the opposite often happens – you get more and more information and you fill your life with more and more interventions, pilling pebbles of stress on an ever bigger pile. The very cures you are offered become the poison that push you further away from the state of health you desire. This is why the principle of ‘subtraction‘ is so powerful – even if anathema to many Western capitalist minds – getting more for less. Running faster by running slower. Getting healthier by removing things from your life rather than buying fixes. Getting happier by saying no to more so you can focus on the few important things. And so on. Imagine a life without the pursuit of more. Current society, of course, does not want us to pursue the path of subtraction because this does not fuel the economy as it exists. An injured runner is a fabulous consumer. They will part with money to buy things they do not really want – on the hope that it will return them to the healthy state where they can do what they do want to do. Injured runners keep the economy going just like sick people do and just like today’s quintessential consumer has been carefully raised to do. We are driven to have wants that harm us instead of simply buying what we actually need to be healthy, strong and happy. All of it is, of course, a vicious cycle bringing you further from true health and further from true insights about yourself. Not every coach or therapist is worthless in this worldview – only those who do not expand your mind and bring your focus back to accepting the current situation as it really is, showing you the priorities and providing you the impetus to focus your presence there.
Does this change your perspective on your own injuries? If so I’d love to hear your stories. The current paradigm is broken. We must tell the stories to undo it and rebuilt a better one.