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Steve has a mysterious shoulder pain that has persisted for three months. He sees me every fortnight and receives temporary relief from our sessions, but the discomfort always seems to reappear. We are both frustrated with his limited range of motion and overall lack of progress. I have applied every technique I know and am at a loss about how to help him further.
Steve is thirty-six, a pragmatic, successful businessman who proudly supports his two young children and homemaker wife. His body type is that of a powerful bull-dog. Very muscular and strong, yet so tightly packed into his skin, I almost expect him to be bursting out of his business suit, a bit like The Hulk who gets too big for his clothes when he transforms. Very capable and ambitious, Steve has more of a dominant personality that does not deal well with life restrictions.
As I witness his vulnerability cracking his confident exterior, I understand the concerns beginning to creep into his mind. It’s like an unwanted parasitic ivy plant that has the habit of insidiously growing unchecked on a brick building. The roots infiltrate into the cement that binds the bricks together and gradually undermine its walls’ strength and function.
After twelve frustrating weeks of Doctors’ visits, tests, and X-rays, a lack of diagnosis creates a combination of anger and fear in Steve. When he verbalizes some of his concerns, they sound like, “What if I have some mysterious disease? Why can’t anyone tell me what’s wrong?! What if this never gets better? What am I meant to do next? Who can help me? What if something else is lurking in me, getting ready to pounce? What if I become disabled?”
This kind of chaotic internal dialogue is widespread for us, even if we don’t want to admit it. It’s always fascinating to note that the mind tends to imagine the worst scenario when given the unfettered range to roam around in our heads. Why do we do this? According to Dr. Laurie Ferguson, a clinical psychologist, “We try to “take charge” of our lives by imagining these harsh outcomes so we won’t be surprised if they wind up happening. The trouble is, we waste precious time and energy ruminating on things that usually do not occur.”
Dr. Ferguson continues, “A good way to decline worst-cases stories is to replace them with alternative endings. They don’t even have to be happy endings. An alternative scenario allows you to be in more control of how you are helping or hurting yourself.”
It takes some measure of mindfulness and practice to change the thoughts we serve our imagination. A wonderful, wise woman, Eve, who was in her early eighties when I knew her, used to worry that she would contract breast cancer. Every time she found herself going into the C-word world, she would say, out loud, “Carrots!”
Eve knew exactly what she was doing here. “Carrots” was a brilliant distraction from her fears. This broke the pattern of potentially repetitive, calamity thinking. It startled her into something so unrelated that it would make her laugh instead of worry. It worked for her!
Steve finally got an answer to his persistent shoulder pain, and it did not come from an expected source. He was having a routine visit with his dentist and happened to mention his discomfort while laying back in the chair. The Doctor, bless him, an older and more experienced practitioner did some sleuthing and followed the dots of Steve’s complaints. He concluded that the shoulder pain was caused by an inflamed nerve deep inside one of Steve’s teeth!
What intrigued me was that as soon as Steve KNEW the reason behind his discomfort, his shoulder pain was immediately reduced by 70%. Finally, his mind could relax from being in overdrive due to his imagining the worst for himself. As his mind relaxed and quieted itself, his body was able to follow. His nervous system calmed down, his muscles released their tense, holding pattern, and he became more solution-focused than fear-focused.
I have heard of our imagination being referred to as computer software that programs our behavior, expectations, and actions. What are we inputting into our daily reality that literally has the ability to shape and change our lives?
There is a short story that many of you are familiar with, and I’m repeating it here, mainly because its simplicity and truth deeply inspire me.
An American Indian wise man is out in the desert with his grand-son ruminating on and teaching him about life.
“You know,” he says to the boy, “Sometimes I feel like I have two wolves fighting inside my heart. One is the faith-filled, optimistic, and loving wolf. The other is the mistrustful, pessimistic and fearful wolf.”
“Which wolf will win the fight in your heart Grandpa?” the young, innocent boy inquires.
Grandfather thoughtfully and slowly replies, “The one I feed.”
In Norman Vincent Peale’s words, a famous advocate of the power of positive thinking:
“Imagination is the true magic carpet…..In every difficult situation is potential value. Believe this, then begin looking for it…..The person who sends out positive thoughts activates the world around him positively.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are my own views, for the reader’s information and education only. This does not constitute legal, medical, or psychological advice. Where individuals have been named, I have had their express permission to quote them here, or I have changed names, gender, and circumstances to protect all individuals’ privacy completely.