Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Practicing being joyful

It's been over a year since I last posted .... I will try to make shorter, but more frequent posts

About a month ago I went to a fantastic course on myofascial medicine that was put on by UPMC, and it's had some major impacts on the way I think about musculoskeletal conditions.

The single most impactful thought that someone shared with me at the course is that we need to practice being joyful. I thought that this was a remarkably brilliant insight.

The nervous system is designed to adapt to anything you do frequently as a "new normal." This can have negative consequences if you look at people are who routinely miserable. As a thought experiment. think about the last time you were at the DMV. It's a miserable environment, everyone hunches their shoulders, and there is a palpable tension in the room. Now imagine being like that all time- that would be a horrible "new normal."

Instead, imagine trying to practice a "new normal" by practicing being joyful. Here's a simple exercise- extend your hands overhead like you just crossed the finish line of a marathon. Didn't that make you feel better? I don't think it's possible to put your arms overhead in a victory position and be in a bad mood.

I don't think this is just psycho-babble- I think it reflects a real neurologic phenomenon. Paul Ekman did some ground breaking research that demonstrated that if you have a person put their face in a smiling position, their mood will improve. I think that this is true of the body as a whole as well- if you place your body into the position of happiness, you will feel happier.

I've noticed this when I work on some strengthening exercises in my patients. I often work on them to strengthen their posterior chain (muscles behind their back like the thoracic paraspinals) and stretch their anterior chain (muscles in the front of their body, like the pectoralis minor), and an interesting ancillary phenomenon is that most of them notice that they are noticably happier. It happens almost instantaneously. I don't think this is an accident- by training their muscles so that they can literally walk taller, they also figuratively walk taller- they become happier.

And so do I.

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