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Channeling Your Curious Cat

I'm in Baltimore through the weekend for a Barral visceral course about the pelvis. I left Richmond yesterday at 5pm, a time that I thought was sure to be a disaster. Rush hour on 95 is the perfect recipe for a stomach ulcer, was my thinking. I was dreading it and planned for all the podcasts and music that would keep me company. But a small voice inside me said, "What if I'm wrong?" The crazy part? I cruised up here no problem. In fact, I dare to say it was one of the smoothest drives through Northern VA that I've ever had. It reminded me of this saying one of my mentors, Greg Johnson, a co-founder of the Institute of Physical Art (IPA) often says: "It's your stinkin' thinkin' that's the problem."

We don't see the world through a clear lens because, well, we are human. We see the world through our perception backed by our past experiences. We see the world using predictions of what we expect to see and we use confirmation bias to hunt for clues that we are right, ignoring other information. Attitudes and beliefs are shaped throughout our lifetime and then used to make sense of what's in front of us. They can help us thrive and be open to the ever-changing landscape around us or they can create what seems like reality but may actually be a rather narrow point of view. Obviously, I am not a mental therapist so diving deeper into this is for a different professional, but I am a physical therapist and the mind and body are one. Maybe you've had your own self limiting thoughts, such as "I will never get better", "I'm just naturally a weak person", "My mother had arthritic knees so I must have them too", "I just have a bad back", or "My neck just randomly goes out". One of the most powerful ways I've found to address this aspect of working with people is to encourage harboring their inner curiosity. For the sake of a good chuckle, we will call it channeling your curious cat.

My 9-month-old son is incredibly curious, as many babies are. He wants to get into everything. He whips his head around to make sure he doesn't miss a thing. He opens cabinets, pulls out wipes from the box, and yanks on all of the plants. I am in awe of his infinity to observe, explore, and get messy with no inhibitions. At his stage, everything is so new and he has no prior experiences to compare anything to. If we were a "typically" developing baby, we had this infinite curiosity as well. I think this skill is still inside all of us but sometimes we forget it is there; we lose hope to what possibilities could happen.

Even though curiosity relates to all aspects of our life, I want to specifically focus on pain. I know that when you are in the day-to-day with managing nagging symptoms or an injury, it can be hard to imagine that it will ever end. I challenge you to take a hard look at your attitudes and beliefs. What if they are wrong? Can you open your eyes, your heart, and your mind to curiosity?

Here's a good example of a recent interaction I had with a client about symptoms and curiosity. Her pain was experienced in the morning and so we talked about her mattress. After some discussion, she didn't think the mattress was contributing to her symptoms but a part of her was still curious. How do I know that? Because after she slept on multiple mattresses while on a trip, she noticed she had no pain. Through her own sleuthing, she was able to purchase a mattress that worked better for her, despite previously believing her original mattress was fine. Had she held on to her previous belief, she may have thought her reduction of symptoms were just happenstance. This was brilliant! I was so excited for her.

Here are some questions to ask yourself...

  • What happens if I cut _____ out of my diet for at least 4-6 weeks?

  • What if I'm wrong?

  • What happens if I modify this exercise? Try different shoes? Do things differently?

  • What happens if I walk or run slower than I want but at a pace that my body enjoys?

  • What if maybe I don't have all the information I need?

  • What if I listen to my body, heart, or soul?

  • What if I don't understand or even know about all of my options?

  • What if I tried a different mattress? Or pillow?

  • What if I stopped before my symptoms got worse instead of pushing through them?

  • What if I met with a professional who could help me understand my thoughts and feelings?

  • When does my pain seem to get worse? When does it get better?

  • What if I changed my expectations?

  • What if I learned how to move efficiently?

  • What if I learned about the timeline of tissue healing?

  • What other outcomes are also just as possible?

  • Is what I'm thinking fact or opinion? How do I know for sure?

  • Is this confirmation bias?

Be curious about what specific activities or lifestyle choices could be related to pain instead of the idea that pain "just happens". Channel your curious cat. With curiosity comes glimmers of hope.

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