Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Allowing for sensation

Life is painful, it is. It's a lot of other things, too, of course. But being alive involves pain from the moment of birth until our last gasps, moreso for some than others. No wonder, then, that we began searching for ways to dull the pain long ago.

According to my quick google search, opium was first used as a painkiller 6,000 years ago. My guess is that even before that, we used fermented fruits, grains and milk - that is, liquor - to ease the aches and pains of life. Herbal medicine is ancient. Willow bark was steeped in hot water, administered as a tea, long before we figured out how to turn it into aspirin.

May I say right now that I'm all for pain killers. I'm grateful for their existence! Who wants to suffer? Not I, nor anyone I know.

But - at some point, we got carried away with the wonders of painkillers. The picture at the top of this post does not include all the options to relieve pain that are available at the corner drug store. There is an entire aisle of painkillers, which of course doesn't include the stuff you can only get with a prescription. Caffeine is a pain reliever, too.

We can not get enough of our painkillers. That should be a good thing, I guess.  What I see is that the emphasis on using every kind of painkiller has served to convince us, at a very deep level, that we shouldn't experience any kind of physical sensation except pleasure. Believing we should never be in pain has created many problems!

Because we think we should only feel good, whenever we feel a twinge, an ache or a sharp pain, we take something to make it go away, or alternatively we try to ignore it. It's rather appalling to realize that many of us do both at once - swallow an Ibuprofen while actively ignoring the very thing that made us reach for the bottle of pills. After years of this kind of behavior, it becomes almost impossible to feel anything going on internally - except pleasant sensations. It's a big problem when we go see the doctor because it's difficult if not downright impossible for us to accurately explain what we're doing there. We are not fluent in the language of describing symptoms, and too, we're embarrassed, frightened or ashamed to admit we're in pain. We've learned to think pain is wrong. Pain is normal, it is a guide. Yes it's scary - it's supposed to be scary.

The doctor's job is to figure out what's going on. Without detailed input from us, the doc has no choice but to administer tests. Oh lord, the testing, the drawing of blood, the scans, MRIs, the invasions of our beautiful bodies with probes and needles and lights and scopes - well - none of that is pleasant in any way. Yet we submit to these tests because we have no trust in our ability to describe or even to feel what's ongoing internally. We have, by and large, given up even trying to sense health imbalances. We learned to leave it up to the professionals and the professionals came to believe we were of no help in the process of diagnosis. Hence the rise of modern medical testing.

Thank god modern medicine's love of testing peaked a few years ago. It's a relief to see that studies and experts are now advising us to scale back on testing. Current research supports the truth that, in many cases, testing causes more harm than good. I always say to my clients that our bodies do not enjoy being probed, poked, scraped, and having little bits snipped off. Yes there are times when testing is important. I'm grateful we're able to test, but unless something is wrong, it's unpleasant, expensive, frightening and time consuming.

Here's a link to an article from the New York Times about pelvic exams, something I endured annually as a young woman. There was never anything wrong with me. My periods were regular as clockwork, I had cramps but nothing serious. In other words I was a healthy young woman, but still I put my feet in the stirrups every year, submitted to the discomforts of the speculum, for no good reason.

What I've not seen yet is common sense advice to go along with less testing. We have to begin to allow ourselves to feel what's going on inside us. We need to spend time with our symptoms rather than push them away. When we get a headache, we need to be conscious, take note. We need to pay attention to where it hurts, whether it's a dull or sharp pain, if it passes quickly or hangs around. Is there a fever? Do we feel queasy? Are there visual components to the headache? Are we congested? We need to think about whether we've had more headaches than usual recently. If we pay attention, then when we see the doctor, we will be able to provide detailed information about the goings on of our bodies. Less testing won't work unless we step up to the task of paying attention.

When in pain, please try to be kind to yourself. I have clients who get angry with their bodies when they're in pain. This response does not help and is cruel. I say to these people, if your pet was in pain, or your child, would you get angry? Of course not.

Symptoms are the body's way of expressing itself. Please pay attention, please work with those sensations instead of always trying to tamp them down or wipe them out, will you? In this way we will not only become more active participants in our health care, but will become kinder and more compassionate as a result.

Respect your body, please? It's doing the best it can! Shalom.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Be prepared

When something awful happens, such as the Boston Marathon bombings - was that only a little over a week ago? - the first responders are usually bystanders and victims. That's because it's the bystanders who are already there. Did those people know what to do or did they jump in because help was needed, even though they might not have possessed first aid skills? I don't know the answer to that, but I wonder.

To maintain my therapeutic massage license, I'm required to be CPR and first aid certified. I admit I wasn't initially keen on learning these skills since I tend to freeze, like a deer in the headlights, when confronted with emergencies. Would I have rushed towards the explosions in Boston? Probably not. I'm not proud to admit it. But there are many people who would, and will - and did - rush in to help. When I worked at Whole Foods, I was the only employee in my store who was certified in first aid. That seems crazy to me. Every store employee should have been trained, yes?

Though I didn't look forward to it, I was tremendously impressed by my initial training from the Red Cross, and from subsequent trainings since my first class so many years ago. Because of the training I was able to recognize what was happening the one time when a client, arriving for a massage, was close to succumbing to a heart attack. She said she had terrible indigestion, had been belching all day. Her ankles were swollen and she was tired, also sweating even though it wasn't hot. She swore she was OK, but she was not. I had the presence of mind to remember the symptoms from my training, remain calm and call 911. I knew to tell her to sit quietly until the EMTs arrived. (She had a stent put into an artery and was fine.)

Though it's not likely I would run towards the scene of a disaster, the training helped me deal appropriately with that situation. It was well worth it - my client would agree!

Much of CPR/first aid training involves common sense. Some of the training is specific and technical, especially for CPR, rescue breathing, using an AED and for situations such as helping people who are choking. It is well worth learning these skills.

Hands on classes are available in most cities. You can also study online these days - of course. I just took a class from Pro-First Aid that was top notch, a series of 3-5 minute instruction videos on a variety of scenarios. Even if you don't take the test, pay the fee and become certified, it's well worth learning how to conduct yourself in an emergency. You can just watch the videos. I highly recommend it.

It's sad that in the U.S. we are experiencing horrible tragedies such as the bombings, also the mass shootings we've endured particularly since 9/11. Since we as a country seem unable to curb our addiction to weapons, I expect there will be more of these awful tragedies.

We humans are, by and large, a good hearted species. There are a few bad seeds, but mostly we are altruistic, compassionate and brave as hell to run towards an explosion rather than away from it. Every one of us good people should have some basic training in first aid and CPR, just in case. I'm not hoping or wishing for disaster, but if it should happen, wouldn't you rather know what to do?

May you and yours be well, may you and yours be safe. Shalom.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mad as hell?

In spite of the truth that we humans are highly emotional beings capable of experiencing a wide array of feelings, in American society (in general) only a couple of emotional states are acceptable. 

Joy and its lackluster sibling, happiness, are OK. There are many studies, books and ideas out there about how to become happy. Those who seem unable to access that emotion are often judged. 12 Things Happy People Do Differently circulated on FB recently. The question is, differently than whom? Oh! Those unhappy LOSERS. Isn't that the unspoken message?

Sadness, depression, worry, grief, and fear are taboo. We're supposed to "get over it," or take a pill or pretend we feel some other way. Don't worry, be happy. If only it were so easy! I understand the idea behind it - no one wants to see others suffering. No one I know enjoys suffering. But these uncomfortable feelings are an essential part of being human. I wish we were more tolerant of the complex, conflicted assortment of thoughts and feelings inherent in our humanity.

It's OK to be happy in my society. It's also OK to be angry. In fact there are many situations in which anger is admired, vaunted, elevated as the most desirable of emotional states. The saying, If you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention describes perfectly the way we admire anger. It's bizarre. 

Anger can be effective even when it should be the other way around. I'm referring to situations in which, for instance, I've only succeeded through anger, by being the squeaky wheel who demands to speak to the manager. Customer service would, in a world of my making, revolve around the people who are polite, not the jerks waving their fists and raising their voices until everyone in the vicinity is uncomfortable.

Sometimes I become the fist waving jerk, but only when the polite and patient approach isn't working. When I have to resort to that kind of behavior, I'm always amazed - and appalled - by how quickly my needs are addressed. It's not right, but it is how things work in my society.

After a display of anger, I feel shaky and exhausted, my stomach hurts, my jaw is clenched and I'm positive my blood pressure is elevated, though I've never measured it. Further, after a bout of anger, it's difficult to turn my mood around. I feel resentful, even when the wrongs I got so worked up about have been righted. Other situations that make me mad come into my mind. It's as if I want to feed the anger. I think I'm not the only one to react this way.

Pema Chodron, a super bad ass Buddhist, describes anger as a "piercing" emotion that can clear the air and reveal the truth in a situation or within the heart of the angry person. She advises allowing anger to move through quickly because anger is hot. Clinging to anger, or congealing around that feeling, will burn you. So says Pema and I agree with her. In Chinese medicine, sustained anger will create liver fire. Believe me, you don't want liver fire!

Anger is a rush. It can be addictive because it kicks up lots of adrenaline, but it is not a healthy place to be. I'm thinking about it this morning in the wake of the Senate failing to pass a benign, bipartisan bill meant to help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. We Americans were already saddened by the Boston Marathon bombing, but we're not supposed to be sad, we're supposed to be happy or angry. People will tell us to be angry, they will encourage it, moreso than usual in the aftermath of Boston.

It's not a happy week in the U.S. I expect to encounter waves of anger for the next little while. Because I find the emotion debilitating I will do my best to keep breathing and to stay grounded. I wish there was such a thing as an energetic fire extinguisher. I expect it would come in handy for the next few days at least.

If you're angry, and reading this, maybe you will take some deep breaths, relax your jaw, feel terra firma underfoot. Take one step backwards into the center of your energy. Stand up straight.

By all means contact your senators, voice your opinion, but then, try to let go if possible. Just try. OK?