Pain, posture and personal power
I’m currently reading a book called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. Early on in the book the reader is introduced to a man named Eugene, he unfortunately becomes ill and experiences brain damage, which sadly affects his memory. If Eugene is asked how he can get home if he’s standing at the junction of the road he lives on, he can’t remember. Or if he is asked where in his house the food is kept, he says he doesn’t know. Yet if Eugene goes out for a walk he gets to the junction of the road he lives on he takes the correct turn and walks straight up to the front door of his house. When Eugene is hungry he gets out of his chair goes into the kitchen, reaches up to the top cupboard and goes straight to a jar of nuts inside it. He can’t recall where these things are yet because he’s carried out these actions so many times, despite his brain damage he can still do them; they have been “hard wired” into Eugene’s brain. This act of repetition causes the action to be stored in a more primitive part of the brain the basal ganglia. The learning of these habits is what neuroscientists describe as “chunking” where previously complex actions suddenly require very little input from the higher regions of the brain that are in charge of conscious thought. In short, for Eugene these behaviours were made habitual. This is an example of the power of habit.
As I write this we are all in the midst of a global pandemic. I won’t name it as frankly I suspect we are all sick of the word and that’s just the emotion for those of us lucky enough to not have been personally affected by illness or family tragedy. Many factors in this situation are beyond our control; fortunately we are still in power of some elements of our lives. Creating good habits in place of bad ones is a huge personal power.
Posture is something that most of us would intuitively report as being important to our comfort or pain levels, especially if we have an injury history. Many people are aware of the teachings of Joseph Pilates, Frederick Alexander and Vladimir Janda about retraining muscle imbalances associated with poor posture. Perhaps we put posture in the same category as healthy eating, flossing our teeth or getting regular exercise, all things we know we should do but they all take a little more time, effort and energy. As Eugene has unfortunately demonstrated, once habits are formed they don’t take much effort to maintain. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on if the habit is positive or negative. Experts have argued for decades about the relative importance of correcting posture to reduce back, neck or shoulder pain. So what is good posture? In some ways I think this question is missing the point; in my opinion postures we adopt are a symptom not a cause. Humans are complex of biological tissues and processes and undeniably movement is at the heart of many of them. Let’s say that we sit or stand in what experts might unanimously describe as “perfect posture” if we stay there long enough we will all feel eventually feel pain. We have to move and move frequently otherwise our muscles and joints get tired and stiff from being in the same position for too long. The modern world has impressed bad habits upon many people. We can’t change the world, but if we stop and think, generally we know what we need to do, but we haven’t had the time or the opportunity to change these unhelpful habits.
So let’s go back to the here and now. Many people are working from home who don’t have a good ergonomic chair, or a vertical mouse, a height adjustable desk or a monitor at the perfect height. These are great tools that can all make life more efficient and comfortable for everyone and if you can get access to these that’s a fantastic way to look after yourself, but remember the power of habit. Maybe this strange time is our chance to exert some personal power and change our habits for our own long-term benefit. Sit straight, move frequently and do some sort of regular exercise. Get used to how that feels, once you’ve done it for a short while it becomes habit and good habits are personal power over pain.