|AREAS OF INTEREST: PAIN, DISCOMFORT, DISSOCIATION, ASSOCIATION, PAIN MANAGEMENT, BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION.
by: Tom Seabourne Ph. D
Take my friend Fred. He strolls in the gym, does multiple sets and repetitions, and walks every other day, but hardly breaks a sweat. He appears to be getting a workout, but months and years go by without improvement.
Unlike Fred, you realize that the first few moments of a workout mean little. To put on slabs of muscle, enhance aerobic capacity, and improve flexibility, it’s the last few minutes that count. It’s not the number of your workouts but the quality.
When training becomes uncomfortable, you stop. But if you never take the opportunity to endure, you miss out. Relax. Get used to it. Face discomfort. Learn about it, and exercise won’t seem severe. Accept it for what it is and handle it. Without pain, there is no accomplishment or real happiness. Pain is uncomfortable, but it’s not the end of the world. Learn to respond to pain with acceptance.
Pain is a multifaceted phenomenon that is part of everyone’s life. Pain is natural and positive, albeit potentially uncomfortable. The origin of the pain is not an issue, controlling it is. We will not discuss “bad” pain – muscle tears or broken bones – but the pain of intense training that stops when you stop.
Human nature is to avoid pain when it occurs. But if you never challenge it, you miss out on pushing the physical limitations of the human machine. Change how you think about pain. The burning in your muscles during strenuous exercise is caused by lactic acid.
Muscles generate lactic acid for the duration of your effort, but the kidneys and liver absorb it. Researchers suggest that the bloodstream is like a bank. There are lactic acid deposits and lactic acid withdrawals, but the lactic acid level remains relatively constant. When you reach your anaerobic threshold, however, the lactic acid production exceeds the removal rate; and the acid remains in the muscles, causing pain.
The body deals with conflicting sensations of pain in different ways. I was riding my bike down an oil top road when, without warning, a black blur streaked in front of me. I shouted in surprise as I broad-sided a Labrador retriever. He swept the front wheel out from under me, and I landed on my head. Blood streamed down my neck, but I felt nothing. I straightened my front wheel and continued to ride. By the time I arrived home, lactic acid settled in my muscles and my endorphins were depleted.
Receptors transmitted pain to my brain at the scene of the accident and during my ride home, but there were other signals as well. Burning quadriceps and labored breathing drowned out the stinging in my scalp. At home, however, there was no stimulation to compete with my throbbing head so a new pain took center stage. According to a popular hypothesis,
thousands of signals come together across nerve fibers that meet between the spinal cord and the brain. This traffic jam of signals allows some signals to get through while others wait; some never make it.
Pain can be mysteriously overridden. Pavlov administered an electric shock to a dog’s paw and rewarded the animal with food. In a short time, following each shock, the dog’s whines and struggles changed to salivation and tail-wagging. Harvard scientists gave morphine to one group of patients after surgery and placebos (sugar pills) to another group. Seventy-five percent of the placebo group felt the same relief as if they had taken the morphine. Professional athletes play injured for millions of dollars. A hypnotized subject does not feel a pin-prick. In the Amazon Valley, an expectant mother spends three hours in seemingly pain-free labor, then returns to work after giving birth.
Nerves send pain messages to the spinal cord, delivering them to the brain. Sean McCann, the sport psychologist at the Olympic Training Center, teaches athletes to use keywords and imagery to reinterpret pain signals more positively. Pain diminishes when you call it something else. Simonton, M.D., says to picture your lactic acid pain as a glowing orange ball. Then see your body fending off the pain (for example the lactic acid glowing orange ball disappearing). A person may describe the pain as sharp, dull, chronic, or overpowering; but another will never truly understand the description. McCann suggests “Don’t say the pain will be over soon.” You’re surrendering. Focus exclusively on your effort. You must be in control of your pain.
According to psychologist Jerry Parker, what you think and feel affects the experience of pain. He says pain is sensory, emotional, and cognitive. The pain messages that reach the brain may be controlled. The mind can magnify pain or sublimate it. Pain signals scream so loud they drown out rational thought. Change those howls of agony to shouts of joy. Serious training schedules are intense. Muscle fibers split and joints ache. You can choose to interpret these signals as debilitating or change them to wonderful sensations of success.
Your ability to handle pain is what sets you apart. Approach pain with courage. Deal with it on your terms. Handle pain one step at a time. Preparation for pain helps endure it. Modern triathletes, bodybuilders, and ultra-endurance athletes revel in pain. That last repetition on your SportCord may seem severe, but the brain transforms it into joy. Changing your mind about discomfort can change your body.