What Physical Therapy taught me about enjoying life

Have you ever felt your body tense up as a result of a tough moment at work or during an anxiety-filled conversation with a family member? Odds are the answer is “yes” since you’re a human being. I have felt that way, and it wasn’t until I experienced a painful injury at work and went to physical therapy that I learned to slow down and listen to my body. I’ll share a glimpse into my journey with work-related injuries and hopefully you’ll learn enough to avoid the pain I had recover from.

How I Ended Up Overworked And In Pain

If you’re like me, you often find yourself working too many hours because you’ve got something to prove to your bosses (or secretly to yourself). Even though I was in the peak of health during my twenties, it only took a few months of overtime to land me in a world of hurt where I had lost sensation in two fingers on both hands. It’s amazing what you can learn from the difficult times…and I had many learning opportunities due to the fact that I had to have multiple disappointing surgical consults that recommended I go under the knife to solve my chronic pain. The first surgeon thought I had a combination of Cubital Tunnel and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and was trying to rush me into surgery.

Thankfully, eventually I landed on the doorstep of a better surgeon. Instead of a quick surgery, the doctor was able to diagnose me with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and prescribed physical therapy as a more conservative treatment. Most of the time that I spent with the doctors and related therapy staff involved “unlearning” everything I knew about physical movement. It was one of the toughest times of my life, but it would become the foundation of great change for me.

Pretending I Knew Better

I recall telling them frustratedly, “No, you don’t get it– I’m supposed to push through the pain.” I felt that there was only one way to improve my body and it was the “feel the burn” approach that I had learned in high school during my “Strength & Conditioning” courses and during my varsity sports training. Shame on me for resisting the professionals, but I changed my mind pretty quickly when I found that my approach was pushing me deeper into the pain of my repetitive stress injury. Clearly I needed to open my mind. And here’s what the Physical Therapists (PTs) told me:

“You should do the stretches without feeling any pain. Move up until the point of pain but no further.”

I tried it even though my head was full of doubt. And I thought to myself, “Hey, even if this does nothing, at least it won’t make things worse!” And so after a few weeks of slow, gentle, gliding movements, the PTs informed me that my range of motion had increased 5 inches. If you had asked me what my progress was, I would have told you I didn’t make any. And yet, I had measurable improvement. By doing “nothing” I had gained “something.” Clearly there was something to this approach of not trying.

Recovery, and Re-Recovery, and Recovery Again

It worked. The “non-surgical Route” worked for me. I was in the rare group of people that responded to stretches, muscle stimulation, and ultrasound therapy. Ultimately though, the most powerful intervention they Physical Therapists provided was the reeducation of my relationship to my body– I now had awareness of when I was letting myself become overworked.

Years later after discovering the joy of secular Buddhism, I was amazed to realize that what the doctors and PTs were asking me to do was to “mindfully stretch.” It’s amazing that Western medicine incorporates so much of Eastern thought. Now, you may ask if I don’t have any physical pain since I now have the benefit of both scientific and philosophical processes?

Hell no. I’m just like everyone else, running around worrying about making more money, making my house look perfect, and trying to eek out the most fun I can have in a day– often at the cost of my body which is overworked from taking on too many concerns. I know what I need to do. But I don’t always do it.

Enjoying The Movements To Help Avoid Backsliding

Yea yea. Every month or so I find myself back in a bad place– a flare up of muscle pain or a numb finger. So how does one get back to health? How do we fight our habit energy? Well, I pulled out the old diagrams that the PTs gave me (from when I transitioned to the “at home” portion of my therapy regimen) so I could try to get myself back into that ideal state of calmness and flexibility. After putting a couple of warm compresses on the trouble areas and then proceeding through the stretches in a relaxed fashion, I found that my mental maturity brought something to the stretching experience that I never experienced before: enjoyment. I was actually enjoying the movements! I started to think of the stretches like a beautiful dance or like a conductor’s wand effortlessly moving to the music.

Finding enjoyment in the work of nourishing my body has helped immensely. I actually want to do the stretches! And what was the major difference between my 20s and my 30s? I breathe during the stretches now. Yes yes, my PTs always said:

“Remember to breathe through the stretch.”

But I didn’t know “how” to breathe until Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings showed me how to enjoy breathing.

“You should allow your body and your mind to rest. Our mind, as well as our body, needs to rest. The problem is that not many of us know how to allow our body and mind to rest. We are always struggling; struggling has become a kind of habit. We cannot resist being active, struggling all the time.”

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

Okay, so that fits. And it helps remind me to stop struggling through the stretch and to give my body time to rest. But wait… didn’t your intro mention some kind of lesson about slowing down?

Appreciating Stretching Of Muscles and Of Life Goals

It’s been so long since my early twenties when I let myself get so burnt out that I had to rebuild myself in Physical Therapy. Have I truly left my overachieving, promotion-craving self behind?

In a few months, my wife and I will be having our first child. I must admit that I am terrified– not of being a father, but of losing that time when I got to work extra hard at work. In a sense, I am in the middle of a deep “mental stretch” right now. And I have two options:

  1. Force the stretch and rush through to the part where I am a dad.
  2. Enjoy the time I have and accept that things are changing, stretching, and growing.

Let’s be honest– stretching hurts. I’m not talking physically– we cleared that up: don’t stretch to the point of pain. I’m talking about the emotional pain of opening yourself up to uncomfortable growth. It’s these moments where we have to think about the future that has the potential for “tightening” us up.

But don’t fear the future when you can enjoy even the smallest of actions whether it be physical therapy, sitting across the table with your wife, or getting ready in the morning. Putting together my daughter’s crib is not my classic description of “fun,” but instead of rushing through it to go do something else, I can stop and take the time to put it together mindfully. I can breathe and enjoy this new aspect of my life that is opening up. Instead of feeling worried about the day she will be in the crib, I can feel joy in entering this next stage and in having the time to prepare for it.

“Don’t allow yourself to be a slave of the past or the future. This practice is the practice of freedom. And if freedom is there, you will enjoy brushing your teeth. Resist the tendency to be carried away by your thoughts and fears.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

So in this time of great change, I’m choosing to do the one action that always works: I’m going to breathe through the stretch, through the transition. I’m going to slow my mind down and enjoy the time that I have. And hopefully I can keep the stretch going and enjoy the time with my child when she arrives.

I won’t make the mistake I made in my twenties where I burn through extra hours at work and rush towards some promise of a raise. As the incredible band, The Flaming Lips, sang: “All we ever have is now.”

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