Friday, August 10, 2012

Can Changing Your Brain Change Your Pain?

I'm always getting asked about "other things" people can do to decrease their pain, when they can't make it into the office.  Luckily, in my former life I was a personal trainer so I've always got certain exercises or stretches that can help some of the time.  A few people need weight loss, some people need muscle strength, and others need a different way of thinking.  This blog is dedicated to one of those patients, who opened my own eyes to a different way of thinking.

Recently I finished a book called Finding Flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  It wasn't the easiest read, I wish I could recommend the cliffs notes, but it was fascinating.  I picked up this book a few weeks ago because of a patient I see every month who has a horrible back.  A back that I wouldn't wish upon anyone, but amazingly this guy is always up beat, and happy.  He lives in pain, and we try to give him some relief, which he is always grateful for.  But last time I saw him I was particulary stressed, about who knows what, and I had to ask him how he stayed so positive, so relaxed... so happy.  And he referred me to this book he read years ago called Finding Flow, and what follows is my own journey to find flow.

Flow is often times referred to as "the zone" and athletes around the world can relate to this feeling.  But it doesn't just relate to athletes, it can be seen anywhere.  Basically it's those times in life when all of the sudden you wake up and say "wow, I was just (doing something) for the past hour and it felt like 5 minutes."  It can be seen when new couples are out to dinner and they notice nothing about their surroundings, not the time, not what they ate, not anything but each other.  Or when a mother holds her newborn baby for 8 hours straight and realizes she hasn't even eaten breakfast.  Or when you workout intensely and forget about all the stress in your life.  It's a time where intense focus for the present event completely drowns out your surroundings.  Whether it's during intense exercise, intense work, or intense connection with another person, flow is when our brains are the most happy.

The author believes that the happiest people on the planet live most of their lives in flow.  No matter what they do, whether they're athletes, teachers, or carpenters, they all find a way to live in flow.  He thinks that when the brain blocks out all other stimuli it can function at a high level and what comes from this is happiness.  The book delves into many examples and he makes some great points about how focusing intensely on whatever we're doing will eventually train our brains to enjoy that activity.  It's a very interesting premise.

Now for me, and maybe you as well, finding flow is not as easy as it sounds.  I once had flow... playing sports years ago.  That cingular focus, where nothing else enters your brain other than what you have to do at the moment.  It's the exact opposite of multitasking.   As a business owner and just as a person in general, finding flow is much more difficult.  You can probably relate.  What bills do I have to pay?  What new supplies do I need? Have I payed my quarterly taxes? Does this tie match? What am I eating for dinner, etc. etc. etc.  When I allow my brain to think about everything I must do during a single day I am scattered and nowhere near my flow.  I'm sure you can find times in your life when you're looking at a task in front of you, and ten minutes into the task you realize that you're searching the web, checking your phone, checking the weather, planning the weekend, or texting a joke to a friend.  Even when we walk down the street enjoying the weather our brains lose focus.  We start thinking about our jobs, our appearance, the appearance of someone walking by us, what we have to do this weekend. We all do it, but is it the best way to live?

Back to the patient we talked about earlier.  He explained to me that he never allows his brain to multi-task.  He writes out what he has to do for that day, and he focuses on each act separately, as intensely as possible.  It enables his brain to stay focused, allows him to finish every task he starts, and his days just fly by.  He says that he used to allow his brain to focus on what was wrong with his back or what was wrong with his life, but once he trained his brain to start focusing on the right things a lot of his pain went away.  Now he goes from activity to activity with focus and passion, no matter if it's closing a deal or washing the dishes, he uses focus to keep him on point.  When he gets home and talks to his wife, he actually talks to her, he doesn't stress about anything that happened at work, cause he knows he needs to focus on what he's doing at that very moment.  He said after a few weeks of practice it became second nature and now he's happier than ever before.

After reading "Finding Flow" I started to take a look at how much of my day was spent out of flow.  How many times do I listen to someone talk but not hear what they're saying?  How often do I check my phone, facebook, twitter, email, etc for no apparent reason other than to pass time?  How many days have I gone to the gym and been bored by doing the same routine over and over again?  When was the last time I felt that feeling of complete focus without letting other thoughts creep into my head?  Let me tell you, this exercise was not easy.  It made me realize that most of my day is spent multitasking but not really getting much done.  I realized that most of my productivity can be boiled down to just a few hours of intense focus, and the rest is just fluff.

So I started to think about how I could get some flow back in my life.  I asked my patient how he found his own flow, and he told me he started with exercise, in his case it was yoga but he said it could be anything.  This I liked.  Like many others, I am drawn to exercise and it's the one area where I used to feel that flow feeling, as many people probably do.  I can remember when I used to play basketball and got into the "flow" of the game and how it was impossible to think about anything else.  As time has gone by my workouts have been filled with thoughts about what's for dinner, how the work day went, do I have to pick up my dry cleaning?  These are all flow stoppers.  So in an instant, I stopped all that, and joined a boxing gym.

If you follow us on facebook, which apparently is a big flow stopper :), you know that a few weeks ago I started doing fighter training classes over at Peter Welch's gym in southie.  It's a 50 minute workout that is constantly moving... and intense.  You're doing different movements throughout the class, all of which are pretty difficult.  If you go full throttle the entire time you'd probably pass out, unless you're in great shape.  The first time I went I had to stop because I was going to throw up, but I  got through the class.  And you know what I realized?  It was the first time in a long time that I'd gone an hour without thinking about... well anything.  Not once did I want to search the internet, or check my phone, or worry about any ache or pain I normally feel... not once did I think about anything other than the task in front of me.  I was focused, for one hour, on just getting through the class.  And you know what?  That feeling of focus lasted the whole day.  Even when I got to work, I wasn't worrying about every little detail, I wasn't wondering what was going to happen tomorrow, or what happened yesterday.  For that day, I was relaxed, and focused... I was in flow.

And that's how it happens, according to my new Yoda (or Miyagi if you prefer a karate kid reference).  Once your brain feels that flow experience the results last for hours.  Day after day, as flow enters your life again, you supposedly go longer and longer feeling like you're in flow.  This is how my patient trained himself to go throughout each and every day.  He started with something intense that could keep his focus, and he built from there.  Now he focuses on the present moment and doesn't allow his brain to stress out about his pain.  His foundation was Yoga, mine apparently is boxing.  And after a few weeks I am a convert, I believe in finding flow.   Have you found yours?

Doctors Note:
1. Read Finding Flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
2. Take an inventory of your own life.  How often do you lose focus, check email, etc when it's not really necessary.
3.  Find something that enables you to intensely focus, whether it's athletics or art or building something.  Just find it.  And start doing it for an hour each day.  That focus will eventually spill over into everything you do.
4.  Do what Timothy Ferris (the author of The Four Hour Work Week) does.  He checks his email twice a day(if that), and looks at his phone twice as well.  How many times have you checked your phone today???  He says constantly looking at these things causes you to lose focus, and I think I agree.
5.  If you're in chronic pain this may help you focus your brain on something other than the pain.  It may allow your nervous system to reset itself and enable you to live your life in less pain.  It's worth a shot.
6.  Just try it... I'm in no way an expert on flow, I just started paying attention to it.  But I think everyone could use a little more flow in their lives... because honestly, do we really care what that person we met, that one time, and are now friends with on Facebook, had for dinner last night?  Are we really that bored? :)

Visit our website for more information