Command and Control Series

Feeling Pain: The Psychology of Muscles

In a previous post, I likened battle fatigue to muscular fatigue, drawing upon the similarities between constant use of certain muscles and the constant alertness soldiers must have over the course of many days of fighting.

I have thought about this for several months and have decided to compile some of my thoughts on the subject.

Psychological effects on your muscles are different altogether. Think of battle fatigue. It is the result of many consecutive days of fighting. Soldiers who experience battle fatigue are lucky enough to avoid injury or death, but unlucky enough to get a break from fighting.

– Sound The Retreat

The Psychology of Muscles

When I mention that muscles have a psychology of their own, people often think I’m going into pseudoscience territory again. While some of my impressions certainly have only anecdotal evidence to support them, I believe that my thoughts are aligned with the medical truths so many adhere to.

Muscular Psychology final

The only difference is that I am not certified in those fields, and therefore I will use a layman’s diction.

Just as the mind can suffer trauma, so too can the musculoskeletal system. But it is traumatized in different ways. Remember that the body doesn’t always understand what is actually happening outside of it. The hamstring cannot see through the eyes, but neither can the eyes feel the hamstring – therein lies an inability to communicate.

So throughout the day, we put pressure on muscles and joints and after a while, the pressure becomes normal to us. Then, one day, the muscle gives out. In my own throes of agony, I have asked, “If I was doing something wrong (wrong form), why did I not feel something sooner?”

Our Love Affair With Resistance

I’ll speak for myself, but I believe I am not alone – I love a hard workout!

And when I think of grueling workout programs, like Spartan Race and Cross Fit, and my local variety Camp Gladiator, I get fired up! I think, “That is how you get SHREDDED!!”

But you get shredded by obtaining a low body fat percentage and a nice, hard slab of hypertrophied musculature. The former has nothing to do with the specific program or brand name, and the latter can be achieved through the most basic of resistance programs, if you’re consistent with that program.

But we love to sweat. We love to say, “That was brutal,” and high five the guy next to us.

Chemicals are flooding our brains and we stupidly think, “I’m getting stronger.”

And our muscles are crying in anguish, torn and victimized.

Perhaps the way our muscles feel resistance is not the way that the mind interprets resistance. Perhaps that WOD is not a ‘good workout’ for our muscles – it’s only an ego stroke for the mind. Another vanity.

Adapt or Die

There is a General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) in which our bodies are faced with resistance and deal with it accordingly, while preparing to meet that same resistance again.

Think of it like a child learning to not touch an oven burner. The child will ignorantly explore and then discover the searing pain. When the finger touches the burner, pain receptors in the brain (seemingly) instantaneously call for the appropriate muscles to contract, and the hand wrenches away from the danger.

That is a sympathetic response. And, unfortunately, most of us are trapped within a chronic sympathetic state following childhood.

So it is obvious that our developing child-brain could learn to avoid pain. But at some point, we began that dreary trek into the sympathetic wasteland – the wilderness – and we began developing a new relationship with pain, or resistance.

Fight or Flight

If you traumatize a muscle, it may never respond to you the same way again even after it mends and you regain range of motion.

We see it sometimes with fighters. They can be a true technician of their style and be very diligent in their training. But then they get hit a certain way one time and they aren’t the same afterward.

Their body, which is the mind, adapts very fast and very effectively, and develops a resistance to fighting. Just as that child clutches their hand away from the stove top, they freeze in the ring.

This is an incredible reaction of the nervous system! Despite their own recklessness – despite their intentions – their body has adapted to avoid that trauma. It never wants to feel that way again. And for good reason!

Alas, this type of adaptation (trauma) does not help the fighter. They are now unable to compete. It is contrary to their conscious intent. Furthermore, if they are put into a similar situation in or outside the ring and they freeze up, which is the body resisting, the fighter could be gravely injured or even die.

Now, based on this scenario, it is not always healthy to experience resistance, wouldn’t you agree?

Multi-Phase Adaptation

In the event that someone is traumatized by an experience, whether it is from abuse or assault, they are fearful to return to that place. They avoid situations or people that may ‘trigger’ them.

This prevents healing. It stops the bleeding but the figurative wound still festers because the proper treatment is never applied. Some people go their whole lives with an old wound that stops them from actually living.

I recall Jordan B Peterson recounting a series of therapy sessions with a client who was absolutely terrified of needles. First, Jordan would simply say the word, “Needle” to which the client would respond with revulsion.

Then, the therapy progressed to Jordan explaining that he would be bringing a needle to the next session. At the next session, Jordan would explain where the needle was located – on his desk – but he would not bring it closer. Then they would talk while the needle was present.

Progressively, Jordan would lay the needle upon the desk within sight of the client, and slowly, over multiple sessions, the needle would be brought closer and closer until finally he could tough the client with the sheathed needle!

Because the client was in control of the needle’s location and what Jordan would do with the needle, he progressed to the point that needles no longer evoked the same fear – nowhere close.

The client adapted to a resistance formed in the mind through a series of phases in which he was in total control.

We must introduce our muscles into positions in which they are uncomfortable while also being in total control of the situation. We can maintain control by bracing ourselves against a wall or on a bench at the gym, or use elastic bands to support our weight while moving muscles into those different positions.

One major reason that professional footballl players are injured is that they find themselves in positions, often under the load of another player or players, which they are not accustomed to.

It has nothing to do with their level of conditioning – they are conditioned like crazy! But they are not conditioned to be pinned under three 200 pound men with their leg in some awkward position.

Using theoretically sport-related situations, you can put an athlete into different phases of a load and allow them to become more comfortable with that load and explore ways to 1) compensate for the load 2) escape from under the load 3) fight back and overpower the load.

In a way, you can condition any athlete playing any sport to respond like a fighter who must respond i.e. problem solve when faced with an opponent.

Begin with a dynamic warm up in which different joints are mobilized followed by a systematic progression of all reps before the actual workout begins.

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