I received my COVID vaccination yesterday (March 11, 2021), almost one year to the day since I came to the realization that I was going to have to shut my physiotherapy clinics down due to a developing world pandemic. I closed down the primary source of revenue that was supporting my family of five and moved to our family cabin in a small town in central British Columbia for two months where I proceeded to watch the bottom fall out of the world. We lived in a little oasis detached from the realities of the world with literally nothing we could do but be with each other and play outside for two full months; it proved to be exactly what my brain and my body needed, a forced rest. As stressful as the situation was, I found the tension that I was holding in my body and the headaches that I was experiencing started to fade away after weeks of having nowhere to go, nowhere to be and nothing to do. My over-scheduled life was the source of a lot of my daily discomfort.
In late May of 2020 after two months of hiding from other humans, we moved back to Vancouver and I started the process of relaunching a business that required me and most of my employees to be in small rooms physically touching relative strangers all day. I was charged with creating the set of rules that our clinics were going to function under and proceeded to watch people tip toe back out of isolation and into our offices looking for help. We were the first outing for many people after the lock down, so it was very interesting to see and hear how the experience was affecting a broad cross section of others; it is always humbling to learn about other people’s struggles. The part of my job that I value most is the opportunities that I to have to engage with people with very different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives on life, and see how all of those things impact the issues that they are coming in to seek help for.
I have been able to physically feel the stress in people these past two years. The impending doom of a world pandemic, the constant barrage of Donald Trump in the news and his destabilizing effect on world politics, the Black Lives Matter movement and billions of people being trapped inside with their families pressed by financial uncertainty, has collectively turned up the number of amps running through everyone’s nervous systems. People are on edge and it is impacting many people’s experience of pain. My physiotherapy clinics in Vancouver have seen a crush of people coming in that have been working from home with less than ideal ergonomic set-ups, haven't been able to exercise the way they would like to, and are all worried about the health and safety of their loved ones; it is a recipe for stress and the experience of pain.
On March 11, 2021, after seven months of trying to make small talk with thirteen different clients a day when there was nothing happening in the world besides Covid and Donald Trump, I finally got my vaccine and had something new to chat about with my clients. I casually mentioned it to my first client the following day and was not expecting the conversation that followed. It turned out that he was a hard line “antivaccer” and let me know that he would rather die than get the vaccination. We spent about ten minutes going back and forth on the topic before I suggested that we should agree to disagree on the topic because we only had thirty minutes for our appointment, but to my surprise he suggested that he would rather talk it out, so I willingly engaged with him on a variety of conspiracy theories for the remaining twenty minutes and we both left on a positive note with a lot to think about. After a year of watching so many us-versus-them battles play out around the world, I really enjoyed the opportunity to have a non-confrontational debate with someone that held a very different world view from my own. We were both Canadian, white males, in our forties, but I grew up with a loving family and he grew up without a father and had to battle to stay away from gangs and the stresses of addictions. We had both suffered traumas in our lives, but our perspectives on the world and our rules for ourselves were vastly different based on our life experiences.
In the previous two days I had just happened to have listened to The Daily podcast from the New York Times titled Can Bill Gates Vaccinate the World, the first three chapters of Gabor Mate’s audiobook In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, and finished Adam Grant’s book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I had been thinking a lot about mental health, trauma and pain because I am currently writing a book on the topic, so this client caught me at a time that I was both informed and experienced on the topic that he wanted to discuss. I believe that I was successful in challenging some of his assumptions and making him rethink at least some of his feelings on the topic and I think he was successful in helping me understand how his believes stem from an inherent distrust from any form of authority or entity that could place some level of control on his life. His world view was necessarily small in order for him to maintain control and a feeling of security for himself, while I have had the privilege of a history of positive interactions with family, institutions and a broad spectrum of others that have suffered trauma. I still fundamentally disagree with pretty much all of his opinions, but at least now I understand how and why he thinks the way he does. I encouraged him to read In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, to help him better understand why he thinks the way he does, and I hope to help him establish more trust in the people that are trying to help him.
When I say that I have been able to physically feel the stress in people these past few years, I mean just that. I physically touch people for a living, I know my anatomy very well and I understand how people process stress, trauma and pain. Stress is something that people experience with their whole bodies in reaction to both the real and perceived situations that they find themselves in. It is a powerful concept that is often talked about, but largely under-appreciated by most people. It is easy to admit that you are stressed, but harder to accept that your stress may be the cause of your problems, and even harder to understand that a cognitive process can create a physical issue.
Your body experiences stress when you find yourself in a situation that is outside of your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is created based on your life experiences to date and may be very broad, or extremely narrow. The way your brain deals with stressful situations is to process some of it cognitively in the form of anxiety and some of it physically by subconsciously holding tension in your muscles and around your organs. In my experience, subconscious holding patterns are the root cause of most people’s pain and dysfunction in their bodies. Some people hold their stress in the muscles of their shoulders or deep in their hips, while others with deeper seeded issues tend to unknowingly brace the fascial tissues around their organs. Different triggers may elicit different responses in your body, but humans hold the capacity to convert stressful events into physical tension that will restrict how well their bodies can move and that is something that a trained hand can feel. After months, years or decades of holding onto a certain level of subconscious tension, the physical restriction that it has created may in itself become the stressor in the form of pain and people can get caught in a loop of stress creating pain, and pain creating stress.
As a physiotherapist, it is my job to try and get to know my clients well enough to figure out what is the driving factor behind their pain and dysfunction. Most will assume that there is something wrong with a physical structure in them, so it is my task to help them understand how their bodies actually work. People need to know that stress impacts them on a variety of levels and that they need to create a strategy of how to deal with it on an ongoing basis. We all need to have some sort of steam release valve for our bodies and our minds, otherwise the pressure build up will lead to pain, stiffness and cognitive impairment. Some people use exercise as their outlet, others depend on venting to friends, but really need some counselling. Physiotherapists, chiropractors and massage therapists can help let tension out of your tissues, but the good ones will help teach you how to better manage your body and your stress on a daily basis. I utilize IMS dry needling, visceral manipulation, postural awareness and counselling to be the steam release valve that people need and progressively teach them how to need me less over a period of months.
The Covid world has taught me to not take my privileges for granted, to better respect the differences in people’s thought processes and that I have been subconsciously creating most of my own problems by not giving my mind a chance to rest. It has been a chance to stop and reflect on the importance of being able to enjoy a moment because the world as we know it can change drastically from one year to the next.
The mural on the buildings I see on my way home from work every day sums it up well: “The Present is a Gift.” (Broadway & Main, Vancouver, Canada).
Just to let you know...
- This site will be undergoing a big face lift over the next few months and I will start writing regular posts again
- I will be releasing my new online course to help improve physiotherapists dry needling skills in May 2021
- I am currently working on writing my second book, more details to come
- I will release a course for the general public on posture and exercise towards the end of 2021
- You can sign up for occasional email updates on my home page