Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pathways to Positive: Reinventing the Future

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

Almost exactly two years ago I had a cycling accident. Thursday evenings had become a routine to ride with a local group out of Element Cycles. I was helping lead a couple of new riders down one of Cincinnati’s biggest hills, Miami Road, when a car ran a stop sign and pulled out in front of me. I had actually prefaced our descent with the commentary to the group, “Be very careful on this hill. Take it slow. Last year Chris crashed going too fast and had a third degree separation in his shoulder as a result.” But, lighting struck twice as I slammed on my brakes to avoid being t-boned by the car and went over my handlebars landing on my head at 35 mph. We took an ambulance straight to Tri-Health hospital. After hours of waiting for CAT scan and x-ray results, I was sent home with negative tests (apart from a severe concussion), anti-nausea medication, and a prescription to “take it easy.” After what felt like a brush with death, I knew I would have to do more than that. Despite having opened studio s two months earlier and FREAKING OUT about the amount of work to be done, I would need to go above and beyond doctor’s orders for rest.
I'm smiling but the helmet tells the real story of the damage done.

For days afterwards, I couldn’t lift my head on my own to sit up. For weeks afterward, I would need Chris’s help driving me to and from work as well as with performing routine tasks. Two years later, I’m still working hard to stay on top of the residual issues with my head and neck.

This week I had an “ah-ha!” moment after my semi-weekly physical therapy treatment with Eric Oliver. In short, we figured out that I was under-using some muscles of my neck and over-using others as a result of the patterns I’d created to function and protect myself post-crash. The simple solution that I had failed to execute these two years was to create new neuromuscular (brain to muscle) pathways for my body to function in its most optimal, efficient manner.

Wow, was it really that simple? I had been doing stretching, Pilates, massage, cranial-sacral work, trigger point therapy, physical therapy (all which helped tremendously) but the thing I had failed to do was create new neuro-pathways. I mean, c’mon, recognizing the body's patterns is my job and I pride myself on quickly seeing others’ good and bad habits! How did I miss seeing this? It is with my realization that I begin to question how automatic and static my daily patterns are. How many other neural pathways have I failed to create simply out of habit and, dare I say, laziness? And, if this pattern is pervasive, how do I go about breaking through those barriers to new thinking and doing? Time will tell how effectively I’m re-training my muscles through conscious and manual activation but, yes-- it may just be that simple.

central and peripheral nervous system
For many years, even up until the last decade, science concluded that the brain wasn’t changeable and that the creation of new neurons was impossible. It was only recently that “a few iconoclastic neuroscientists challenged the paradigm that the adult brain cannot change and made discovery after discovery that, to the contrary, it retains stunning powers of neuroplasticity. The brain can indeed be rewired. It can expand the area that is wired to move fingers, forging new connections that underpin the dexterity of an accomplished violinist. It can activate long-dormant wires and run new cables like an electrician bringing an old house up to code, so that regions that once saw can instead feel or hear. The adult brain, in short, retains much of the plasticity of the developing brain, including the power to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, to change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer think, imagine and dream. ”

Enrique & J.Lo Chicago's United Center, 2012
It is in the same week that Chris and I ventured to Chicago to see one of our shared favorite artists, Enrique Iglesias, in concert. Dorky, I know, but his music has followed us through the 17 years of our relationship and now when we listen to it, it tells us the history of our past together. Dorky, but really romantic. 

Hours of driving to the Windy City led us to read aloud some of Chicago’s founding history. It's history tells the story of how it went from unsalvagable swamp land to an architectural and historical wonder of the Midwest. “Make no little plans”, was stated by one of the city’s founders, Daniel Burnham. It stuck out at me and AGAIN begged the question: how many of our 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections in the brain are we actually using? Do we continue to have a founder-like view of the world or have we stopped trying at innovation because the world looks/seems complete and we've let our brain take rest?

With my clients I often use the analogy of a path in a field that you've traveled many times. The route is visible, the grass is flattened and worn down by repeated use. It's comfortable, it's familiar, you know where it leads and what to expect along the way. A new path feels weird under the feet the first few times; you might step on something you don't like or discover something neat that you didn't know was there. You just have to travel down the new path a few times before you know how it will work for you and if you like it. Give it a chance.

The wildly amazing thing about the brain is that the more new paths in the grass you create, the more it encourages you to keep treading new territory and, before you know it, the field is covered in a web of new possibilities. So, perhaps, it's just sustaining the few uncomfortable first tries and then letting the wheel turn almost unassisted.

It's been several weeks now and I've been experimenting on myself. As is most always the case, step #1 was recognizing the issue.

Step #2 then became a mental pep-talk to the muscles on my neck. "Okay, guys you've been slacking for good a reason but it's time to go back to doing what you are meant to do."

Step #3 was encouraging new patterns in a tactile way. Each week before my long runs, Eric (or husband Chris) was taping my neck as shown below to a) encourage correct usage of my shoulder, neck, and back muscles; b) serve as a reminder when my posture or head position breaks down mid-run (the tape literally pulls and I can feel I'm off center as my head tends to float to the right);  
c) increase blood flow to the areas where the tape sits.
You've seen it in the Olympics b/c kinesio tape works wonders.
Real Ease neck cradle feels like heaven.
Step #4 has become re-enforcing the new patterns by setting my alarm to do posture checks throughout the day. Or, if pain starts to show up, immediately treating it with stretching or trigger point massage. On my short runs I've also started to rhythmically, and somewhat forcefully, tap on places of my neck that I am re-training to work a bit harder to restore balance.

And step #5 is another method of staying ahead of the curve. Chris and I have made it part of our bed-time routine to pro-actively treat our "bad" spots. He has foot issues and massages it while I put my head in my "neck cradle" which essentially takes the pressure of off my spine and into my occiputs.

The wheel is turning and I've begun to notice an improvement. Will the changes last? Who knows. Will every new pattern or way of thinking in life be this easily created? Doubtful. But, if nothing else, it becomes a fun experiment in potential. This method of creation shows me what's possible of the conscious mind. My next experiment in new behavior and changing the BIG PROBLEMS in life becomes addressing the subconscious--the thing that controls 96% of how we make decisions and whether or not new behavior sticks. But that's a beast for another blog.

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