A Habit of Pain?

By Educational Partner: Megan Ayrault, LMP, L/SAMP of All About Animal Massage

Some pieces of the puzzle often overlooked…. Nobody wants to be in pain. Not us, and not our animals.

You probably have experienced, at least once in your life, or at least observed in someone else, how much energy it takes just to be in pain. You likely didn’t fully realize it at the time though, not until the pain was relieved. Pain is extremely exhausting, even when we’re so focused on the sensation of it that we’re not fully aware of just how tiring it is.

Both our natural laziness (in a good sense, of course), and the negative feedback of pain receptors (ouch!), give us all, whether two-legged or four-legged, a strong incentive to avoid pain.

Too bad there is another major factor of how we are wired, one that can keep us (and our animals) stuck in unhealthy patterns, even patterns that include pain….

Virtually everything we do, every thought we think, even the emotions we feel, are all habits and patterns. Maybe that’s more efficient? (Even if it’s a dysfunctional pattern? Maybe so.) After all, fewer neural pathways are needed to simply follow our old patterns than to make new ones. So yes, at least in some ways habits can be helpful… if they’re healthy and functional habits.

But there are many unhelpful habits that can develop all too quickly, especially when pain is present.
1. A big one is that we move in ways that are less efficient because we’re trying to avoid something painful.

2. Posture changes also, often dramatically. This can be for the same reason as changing our movement patterns, but maybe also for additional reasons. For one thing, there is a connection between physical posture (and also physical expressions on the face) and our emotions. Just think for a moment how much information we can read in an instant from someone’s body posture and expression. And yes, this is true for animals, too. So a posture may be adopted because it avoids a painful position, but it may also be adopted as a result of our emotions and/or simply our exhaustion from being in pain.

3. Breathing patterns! Easily (and often) overlooked, but just as important as movement and posture, possibly even more so. How we breathe affects not only how efficiently we take up oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide, but so much more than than. With deliberate and specific breathing exercises, people can use the breath to affect blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, mood, energy level, stress level, and “right brain” vs. “left brain” dominance, not to mention quite directly affecting muscle tensions and posture.

These movement patterns, postures, expressions, breathing patterns, and more, quickly become habits as the neural pathways (connections in the brain, and between brain and body) become reinforced with repetition, just like when a hard-to-follow deer path through the brush becomes a well-worn “highway” if enough feet, hooves and paws trample it down over time.

So, to try and keep this short and sweet for now, I just want to leave you with three key steps in actually breaking the habits and patterns that accompany pain, and that keep us, and our animals, stuck in those patterns. (Of course, ideally one could use one or more of these steps to interrupt dysfunctional patterns before pain has had a chance to develop yet!)

Note: These three steps (any one, or in combination) could possibly BE the means of reducing the pain in the first place, but in any case, whatever therapies, treatments or techniques are used to address the sensations of pain (bodywork being a great option of course :-), these three steps should be included in preventing, or minimizing, its return….

1. OK, this one is actually two steps in one… Identify any dysfunctional and inefficient patterns of movement and posture and replace them with new habits of healthy, functional movement and posture. Whether for our animals or ourselves, this may be accomplished with help from a skilled trainer (knowledgeable about the body and movement, not only a certain sport or behavior), and/or from a professional skilled in some version of movement reeducation.

2. Strengthen weak muscles. In some cases, almost all muscles simply need strengthening for the joints to be properly supported and functional (and pain-free). In many cases, especially for athletes, there will be many muscles that are plenty strong, and just certain muscles, possibly including quite small ones, that are “hiding” and avoiding their rightful duties in the dysfunctional patterns that have been the old habit. These muscles need to be identified and worked appropriately to support the new, healthier patterns. Physical therapy with a professional is certainly one means to accomplish this, but for less serious cases, or if money is an obstacle, there’s at least one very simple step you could take to help your animal (or yourself) … do a variety of activities! This could even be as simple, in some cases, as going for a walk over uneven terrain rather than along the same old, flat path that’s been the old habit.

3. Last but definitely not least, improving breathing patterns. This has two parts, especially for we humans, but to some degree for our animals, too. The part easily applicable to both people and animals, is to use bodywork techniques (and there are so many great ones) to help the muscles and all structures of the respiratory system to improve health, balance and function. The second part is to practice controlling the breath with selected exercises. Especially of course, any breathing exercises that promote relaxation, stress reduction, calm energy, positive mood, etc. This step would be a little challenging with the animals, though being less “intellectual” than humans, I suspect they don’t need it like we do 🙂 But on some level we may even be able to include a bit of this step for them, mainly by being conscious of our own breathing whenever we are “connected” with them, whether that’s as we provide bodywork, or during any other activities we do with them.

The main thing for improving our breathing patterns, which can directly or indirectly reduce, prevent and interrupt patterns of pain, is to encourage deep breathing (not exaggerated breaths, but also not shallow or constricted). Breathing that actually uses the freedom, range and optimal ease of the respiratory system. In other words, if there has been a long-term habit of shallow breathing due to pain, then the ribs are undoubtedly stiff, possibly joint subluxations involved, muscles certainly tight, and who-knows-what-else to be discovered and released in the muscles, bones, energy, etc. Getting some help with releasing these quickly is a big head start. Use the bodywork to make it more possible (and possibly more comfortable) to take fuller, deeper, healthier breaths. But then our bodies will likely also need at least some reminders and encouragement, and maybe a lot of retraining, to actually take the deeper breaths now physically possible. Otherwise, until we replace the old, worn neural pathways with new-and-improved ones, we may just stick with the old, shallow breaths that have been the habit.

One final note of inspiration…

(Really no pun intended here, but just fun to point out, have you ever noticed that the word “inspiration” also means to take in a breath?)

Here’s a quote I got inspired by just the other day. It applies to everything about us, our thoughts, our relationships, our achievements, our physical health, everything.

“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” ~ John Dryden (1631-1700)

So for yourself, and for the animals in your care, think about the habits you want, do the work to create them as habits, and the payoff will be better health and happiness.

To find more resources and classes on massage and bodywork for animals, please visit AllAboutAnimalMassage.com

To get an ACAN discount for on-line CE classes, videos and books, contact Megan Ayrault, megan@AllAboutAnimalMassage.com

Megan Ayrault, LMP, L/SAMP, is a licensed bodyworker for animals and people, and author of books on equine and canine massage (The Horse Lover’s Guide to Massage and The Dog Lover’s Guide to Massage). She is also the founder of AllAboutAnimalMassage.com, which offers an array of on-line classes, videos, ebooks approved by the American Council of Naturopathy as continuing education or electives. Megan’s specialties include Myofascial Release and Shiatsu/Acupressure, and generally a focus on working with connective tissue (fascia) in ways that balance both structure and energy flow for greater health and comfort.