Today, I was working one-on-one with my Pilates instructor, Shawna, and she had me on an elevated mat known as the Cadillac, laying on my back on a rubber ball with my feet under straps, hands behind my head, and interlaced fingers. And she is about to get me to do a full sit-up using my abs. Just as I am about to come up (my ab muscles firing), I suddenly get the sensation of being cold all through my chest and back. Ice cold. I had this sensation once before while running on a sweltering day. It had indicated that I was dehydrated.
Shawna told me to stop, and we started to talk about the sensations I was feeling. Shawna herself has experienced pain before. She had injured herself and needed to recover and work through her pain.
Sensation? Or Pain?
She asked me about the sensations I was feeling. But to concentrate on when it was happening and what I was thinking about then. We realized I was afraid to hurt my back. Years ago, I had hurt my back so badly that I often could not walk. The sciatica was so bad I had to crawl, and the pain was excruciating. It messes up everything in your body to compensate for this type of back pain.
One such time, I went to the emergency room at the hospital. The triage nurse said waiting to see the doctor would be hours. I told him I would make do. I was in so much pain. I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t lay down. I had tears on my face as I tried desperately to await my turn. The nurse came into the waiting room with a syringe. He said the doctor authorized him to give me a muscle relaxant shot that would relieve the intense spasm I was suffering from. So he took me into the washroom, gave me the shot and sent me home. My brother came and picked up my wife and me and took us home. I will never forget the compassion that man showed that day.
The Shock of Back Pain
Sudden back pain can shock the system - both physically and mentally. It can take you by surprise when you least expect it and make everyday normal activities difficult or even impossible. Little did I know this experience of sudden and severe back pain triggered a trauma reaction – leading to fear, helplessness, panic and despair.
Don't immediately Panic.
In my case, these exercises with Shawna today and before have brought up some strange sensations. In the past, I would automatically associate these feelings with pain. However, Shawna is teaching me to see them as sensations and to train my brain not to immediately switch on the pain response. My osteopath, Marcelle, told me the same thing. Do not immediately panic when you feel these things.
I am learning not to go to the end of the world immediately when I feel that twinge wherever I might feel it. Shawna knows that if I am on a row boat in the middle of the Atlantic, it will be moving in all directions simultaneously, and I will need all types of control to maintain my stability. Marcelle is working on ensuring that I don’t panic. Changing my responses and working on balance and mobility will be a life preserver for me (not the flotation device). Teaching my brain to understand and process things differently.
Studio Zee Pilates
All of my Instructors at Studio Zee Pilates are helping me change how I think and move. Alison has taught me that directing my thoughts toward a specific body part helps that specific muscle or muscle group to work. So, a cool example of this is lifting with your legs and not your back. I had to help my cousin move a TV. It was an older 55” heavy sucker. The minute I bent down, I could feel my panic (oh no, I am going to hurt my back), but this time, I focused on my legs and bingo; I didn’t hurt my back.
Post-Traumatic Stress from Back Pain
Unique Symptoms of PTSD from Back Pain – As someone with a back condition, I have experienced unique symptoms of PTSD related to my injury and chronic pain. These include fear of movement or activity in the area affected by injury, heightened sensitivity to bodily sensations, anxiety about engaging in activities that involve risk of re-injury, and avoidance of activities that could cause further pain or harm. And in my case, I experience severe anxiety and panic just before engaging in these activities. How can I possibly row across an ocean for months?
Tools for Managing Fear
One tool I have heard of to help manage fear is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT involves talking with a therapist and learning how to identify patterns of thinking that lead to distress, anxiety or other negative emotions. From there, the goal is to learn how to challenge and change these thought patterns into more realistic and helpful ones.
Another approach is Exposure Therapy, which involves gradually exposing yourself to the feared situation in a safe and controlled environment. This is the method I am using with my team of professional trainers. Shawna and Alison have recognized when I am anxious before a particular exercise. Shawna said, “You are safe, Stan; I have you.” What she meant was that she was spotting me in this particular move. This can help me manage my fear and gradually build my confidence in doing activities that cause fear or anxiety.
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction
Another tool that can be useful is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This practice involves relaxation techniques, like deep breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle. Pilates teaches breathing methods when exercising, specific to what you do at any given time. This knowledge will help me in my row and for the rest of my life.
Moving Forward with Confidence
I have found that one of the most important things for me is to make progress in small increments. When my instructor tells me to do something that feels overwhelming, she often says, “Just try it once and see how it goes.” Or she will ask me to be mindful of my sensations. The same exercise in Pilates has many variations, so if one causes discomfort, it can easily be switched to another. (Crisis avoided)
Confidence - My Key to Survival
These past few months of pilates have introduced my body to movement it has never seen before, so teaching my brain to recognize these new sensations is vital to my survival. What this does is give me a manageable expectation instead of feeling overwhelmed by what might potentially happen. This can help build confidence and create an environment where the body can thrive. It's almost like I'm forming a relationship with my body; we're learning to communicate and work together. Pilates has truly been an invaluable tool in this journey.
I'm not perfect, and there are some days when it feels like the progress is slow or nonexistent, but that's okay - because I have learned to be gentle with myself and recognize that, just like any relationship, this one takes time and patience. Pilates helps me understand that I can work through whatever challenge and adapt and grow.
Motion is Lotion
PTSD or not, worrying about hurting my back is an issue for me. It affects everything I do. If my back acts up or there is an ache or strain, I often retreat and step away from what my plan was. I will choose to sit down so as not to make it worse, often choosing not to go out for a walk or attend an outdoor event. There is a saying about body pain that we must all remember: Motion is Lotion, meaning our bodies were meant to move and will, in my case, always relieve the pain.
Every session is like a new adventure where I can discover my body's true potential. It's an opportunity to explore different movements and become stronger and more mindful.