I tend to go down intellectual rabbit holes every few years that end up challenging what I think I know. Below is a list of what I read, listened to and watched over the past year and I can confidently say that I am more empathetic, open, compassionate, happier and intrigued after taking a deeper dive into the world of human nature. Please scan through my rabbit hole reading list and meet me down below for my synthesis of some amazing contributions to the understanding of human behaviour.
Rabbit hole reading:
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy Seals and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Dr. Gabor Mate
The Way Out: A Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven Approach to Healing Chronic Pain by Alan Gordon
What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing by Dr Bruce Perry & Oprah Winfrey
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay Gibson
Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder by Dr Gabor Mate
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Dr Daniel Siegel
When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Dr Gabor Mate
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
The Tim Ferriss Show
Episode #298: Dr. Gabor Mate- New Paradigms, Ayahuasca, and Redefining Addiction
Episode #340: Paul Stamets- How Mushrooms Can Save You and (Perhaps) the World
Episode #520: Michael Pollan- This is Your Mind on Plants
Episode #531: Henry Shukman- Zen, Tools for Awakening, Ayahuasca vs Meditation, Intro to Koans and Using Wounds as the Doorway
Episode #533: Paul Conti, MD- How Trauma Works and How to Heal from it
Psychedelics 101: Books, Documentaries, Podcasts, Science and More (Blog Post*)
The Joe Rogan Experience
Episode #1593 (Spotify): Dr Carl Hart, author of Drug Use for Grown Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear
Fantastic Fungi- Gain a deeper understanding of the world of Mushrooms (Stream Netflix/Apple)
The Wisdom of Trauma- a film on the work of Dr Gabor Mate (TheWisdomofTrauma.com)
As a physiotherapist that works with people with resistant and chronic pain problems, I am tasked with addressing clients’ physical concerns while trying to tease out the primary driving force behind their ongoing dysfunctions. The physical therapy relationship naturally allows me to get to know how a person moves, feels and thinks over a period of weeks, months and sometimes years. My academic and post-graduate training have provided me with refined skills to assess movement and feel tensions in the body, but my experience working with thousands of people over the past twenty years has pushed me to further understand how rigid mental constructs impact how people experience the world and their own bodies.
The above list of resources helped me more deeply understand how people become who they are based on lived experience and why it is so important to meet a person where they are at in order to try and help them. We have all developed our own criteria for what we feel is safe and soothing as well as our own triggers for what we see as a threat or stress inducing. Unfortunately, what might be soothing for one person can be subconsciously anxiety provoking for another, so we shouldn’t assume anything about anyone (Talking to Strangers is a great illustration of this idea). We also shouldn’t assume that we know ourselves all that well because a lot of our personality traits are so deeply engrained that we usually are not aware of many of our own behaviours.
I get to play the role of the objective set of eyes for thirteen different people every day and it is very interesting to see how many different personalities show up in the clinic with the same underlying issues: a general ignorance of how their bodies actually work, a collection of repressed life stressors, and a feeling that they must do something more or differently in order to fix their discomfort. Historically both medicine and physiotherapy have placed an overreaching emphasis on trying to identify what structures in the body might be responsible for a patient’s ongoing discomfort by means of diagnostic tests and physical assessments. More recently pain researchers like Alan Gordon (The Way Out) have proposed cognitive paradigms that help people more deeply understand how their thought processes and behaviours could be the driving force behind their pain. My experience leans my beliefs more towards the latter approach, but I am not so quick to trivialize and separate the role of the tissues of the body from the thought processes of the brain as Mr. Gordon does in his neuroplastic pain explanations.
I believe that the human body is more than a vehicle to walk a head around and that people experience emotions in their organs and muscles just as much if not more than in their brains. The heavy heart you feel when you are sad, the butterflies in your stomach when you are nervous, the bracing in your guts when you are angry are all physical manifestations of an emotional being and routinely create tension-based holding patterns in the body that are responsible for many/most pains that we feel. That is to say that pain can originate in physical structures, but most of the time there is nothing actually physically wrong with those structures, it is just a hypersensitivity of your nervous system as it relates to that area.
Physical and emotional traumas can cause your nervous system to become overreactive in certain areas which can cause your muscles and fascia to rest in a bracing state and your brain to misinterpret basic sensory information as a noxious stimulus in a particular area. The muscles in your calf can hold onto tension for months to years after the tissues have healed from a bad sprain, as can your chest hold onto the loss of a loved one, or your pelvis remain guarded after a sexual assault. Purely physical or purely cognitive based approaches to helping people with resistant chronic issues are likely only going to help a small number of people and/or help a lot of people, but only temporarily.
What I mean by being able to meet someone where they are at, is to understand what a person needs at any given time and try to help them with that while trying to empower them to help their self in the long run. Most people’s chronic discomfort is deeply rooted in stress-based, behavioural issues, but that doesn’t mean that they are ready to dive into talking about their childhood or how much they hate their boss. Emotion is held in the body and chronic pain, or dysfunction has the tendency to narrow an individual’s focus onto a series of feelings in their body, which in turn strengthens their nervous system’s reactions in that area creating a viscous cycle.
Physical tension in muscles and fascia, no matter the root cause, will affect how joints move and can lead to structural irritations and pain which in turn can become the bigger stressor. What may start as a stress response can turn into a physical problem that can be objectively felt by a trained professional. It is quite common when people have feelings of anxiety that they develop a tightness in their chest which is usually a product of an increase in the tension in the muscles between their ribs and the bag that their heart sits in. Tension in these areas will mechanically constrict the lungs and make it harder to take a deep breath, which in itself, is anxiety provoking. Emotional stress is commonly at the heart of most people’s long standing issues, but they also tend to be wrapped in layers of physical tension that prevent them from addressing their cognitive dysfunction. People living in a state of pain or tightness for too long start to forget what ‘normal’ is supposed to feel like and need some sort of intervention to help open them to the idea that there is another way to feel, be, and/or think.
The following is the general treatment pathway that I find to be the most successful for empowering people that are lost in a cycle of pain and dysfunction. It is not necessarily as linear of a process as it is laid out because everyone’s needs are different.
Step 1: Listen and Facilitate a Story
Step 2: Explain and Create Meaning in a Story
Step 3: IMS Dry Needling & Visceral Manipulation
Step 4: Education on Emotional Holding Patterns
Step 5: Posture & Movement Experience
Step 6: Discussion about Healthcare Teams
Step 7: Medications, Cannabis & Psychedelics
Step 1: Listen and Facilitate a Story: Build Trust
Dr Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey do a great job in their book What Happened to You, explaining why it is important to shift a person’s inner dialogue from ‘what’s wrong with you,’ to ‘what happened to you?”(Click here for my blog article about the book) Giving a person the time and space to tell their story while asking facilitatory questions helps develop a relationship of trust and understanding. People that are struggling will not understand how their whole story fits together and will need an empathetic ear to pull more information out of them, a process that is only possible when trust has been established.
Step 2: Explain and Create Meaning in a Story: Calm Fear + Create Hope
Most people with chronic issues have done a few laps around the medical system and have developed new fears, received multiple diagnoses, and collected a stressful amount of medications, but don’t really understand what is actually happening to them. The medical mantra ‘do no harm’ falls down regularly due to the structure of healthcare systems, a need to label instead of explain, and the controlling effects of pharmaceutical companies. My first book (Why Things Hurt) and this website are a collection of the explanations that I have found useful to talk clients off the ledge that the medical system has pushed them onto. A layered approach to understanding some basic anatomy, posture and movement can help a person focus on why, instead of what, which puts some perceived control back in the person’s hands, calms fears and creates hope that things can be different.
Step 3: IMS Dry Needling & Visceral Manipulation: Address Tension Holding Patterns
IMS Dry Needling and Visceral Manipulation are treatment techniques that allow a trained practitioner to very precisely alter the resting tone of particular muscles and fascia by tapping into a person’s nervous system. IMS can be intense, but can also have immediate and profound effects on pain, joint mobility and alignment, whereas Visceral Manipulation can be very subtle, but can allow a person to access and let go of things they didn’t even know they had. They are techniques that address the physical manifestations of emotional holding patterns and they can dramatically affect how a person feels. It can be a powerful thing to help a person feel differently after feeling the same for so long and can become an educational tool to help a person see and feel how their life stresses are impacting their body. Physical treatments paired with education on expectations and root causes play an important role in connecting a person to their body in a more positive way.
Step 4: Education on Emotional Holding Patterns: Understanding the Role of Stress
Muscles are supposed to have a certain amount of resting tone to them, they are not limp and flaccid, and they are not completely braced and tense, they should be somewhere in the middle, so they have the capacity to stretch or contract as needed. The tone is regulated by a person’s nervous system which is very influenced by internal and external stressors as well as histories of trauma. Some people become globally braced and others will have their own weak link areas that they seem to constantly develop bands of tension or muscle knots. Sustained postures with poor ergonomics, physical deconditioning, excess exercise, poor shoes and life stress will all have an impact on the resting tone of a person’s muscular system both locally and globally. Loss of family members, past assaults, feelings of neglect and deep seeded anger tend to manifest as tension unknowingly held around a person’s organs, but none of these life events happen in isolation so we become the product of everything we have done, seen, and experienced until the current moment.
Step 5: Posture & Movement Experience: A Reflection of Who We Are
How we stand, sit, walk, and breathe is a reflection of who we are and can become very dissociated from our conscious awareness. It is easier to relieve the tension created by a person’s emotional holding pattern than it is to teach the person how to stop regenerating it. Subconscious bracing tension will make a person feel tight even if they are overly flexible because of the increased tone in areas of their body. Some people have higher maintenance bodies than others due to being hypermobile or a variety of genetic misfortunes, but either way, everyone needs to learn how to deal with gravity in an effective way all day. Understanding how to physically use your body effectively is just as important as understanding the inner workings of your psyche.
Step 6: Discussion about Healthcare Teams: Not Just Doctors
In order for healthcare systems to work, individuals need to learn about how to use them and have a basic understanding of the role and scope of each person on their team. We need to move away from the physician lead model and take on a team approach across disciplines lead by individuals. Stress based chronic conditions are commonly made worse by the doctors trying to help them so shifting to a health-based model involving personal development, mental health and physical literacy will likely prove to have the best outcomes. Doctors are invaluable when you need them, but I think we all need to learn that we don’t need them as much as we think we do.
Step 7: Medications, Cannabis & Psychedelics: What is Your Definition of a Drug?
I work with people every day that have been prescribed a seemingly endless supply of medications with varying levels of success. I, myself, have been prescribed opioids while I was bedridden for three months in intolerable pain. I have sat in the waiting room of St Paul’s Hospital and had a long conversation with a drug addict about his story and his life on the streets of the downtown Eastside of Vancouver. I have written about my experiences with cannabis and now I am gaining a greater understanding and appreciation for the role of psychedelics as a tool to help people better understand themselves.
Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, does an incredible job of helping the reader understand the history, research and applications of psychedelics in our complex world. Tim Ferriss’ advocacy, Dr Gabor Mate’s stories and Dr Carl Hart’s research have all convinced me that we need a more wholistic and open drug policy to deal with the opioid crisis and the interrelated mental and physical health challenges that our society faces today.
As a physiotherapist at a private clinic, I am not working with people that are dying or people that are living at the extremes of poverty and addiction, but I do see how quickly people's lives can go off the rails after unfortunate accidents. People internalize way more than they realize, become a slave to their egos and develop tunnel vision regarding their own mental and physical health. It is common practice for people that seem outwardly healthy and relatively successful to trivialize the role that past traumas have played in their life and/or the toll that insidious levels of stress are taking on their overall wellbeing. I have encouraged many of my clients to read or listen to the work of Gabor Mate, but many of them seem to have trouble making the leap of comparing themselves to homeless addicts, people with chronic diseases or those with attention deficit disorder, which then opens up a conversation on the contexts that can take people from a perceived 'normal' place to one of pain, disease, addiction or homelessness. Human nature does not always align with the societies that we have created so day to day life can create more stress than most people appreciate and have a tendency to marginalize those that have trouble fitting in.
I would say that most people have good success at improving their general wellbeing going through steps one through six above, but some just hold on to too much trauma to allow their nervous systems to let go, and that is where I think psychedelic assisted therapy can play an invaluable role. I spend most of my days trying to help people connect to their bodies, but some people need a means of helping them let go of it in a controlled setting. Psychedelic assisted therapy seems to hold the capacity to truly let a person look at their own life objectively by temporarily dissolving their current perception of reality both physically and mentally. Life stresses and traumas that have molded how a person thinks and reacts to the world around them can be processed more effectively which can allow a person to not let their past define who they are. Most people develop some form of tunnel vision that really limits their experience of the world and it is only in an altered state that they can realize that a whole other version of the world exists outside their field of view.
We are currently in a place that has psychedelic assisted therapies straddling a line between legal and illegal due to our drug policies, but it is an evolving sector than has the business, research, medical and allied healthcare worlds starting to come together. I hope to see a clinical model legally exist in the next few years that resembles steps one through seven in this post and a society that accepts the various means that people seek their altered states. Alcohol, cannabis, meditation, sports, yoga and psychedelics all have their place in helping people relax and develop an open mind in their approach to the world and their own story.
I will not go into the details of what psychedelic assisted therapy looks like because I am far from an expert and I think Michael Pollan’s account in How to Change Your Mind and Tim Ferriss' Psychedelics 101 are the best resource to start with if you are interested in the topic.
I am currently working on my second book that will further elaborate on the topics in this post with stories and explanations to help the reader appreciate how their body and mind actually work in the context of their environment. I hope to complete it this year, but it depends how many curve balls the world throws at me.
Please feel free to leave a comment below and I will try my best to respond.
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