I opened my eyes Friday morning and immediately thought, "Fuck."
My neck was stiff as a steel rod and any attempt to lift my head from my pillow sent severe pain from the top of my neck to my shoulders. For the rest of the weekend, I was taking scorching hot showers, baths, popping ibuprofen, and wearing my travel pillow as a freakin' neck brace.
What happened to my neck?
There are a number of reasons why my neck tensed up. Everyone's been quick to assume it was a weight-lifting incident but, no, it wasn't. (Though it might've been what broke the camel's back.)
Stress causes tension in the neck and shoulders.
When my anxiety spiked in high school, I developed a lot of tightness in my right shoulder from playing tennis and I also developed TMJ (which pretty much means jaw-joint pain) from grinding my teeth at night. High school was also the time that I developed panic disorder. Since then, I've had issues with my shoulders.
Stress happened to my neck
If I look at the facts, these are the reasons why my neck and shoulders tightened up so badly that I was a miserable bastard this weekend:
- Craning my neck while working on my computer all day
- Stress from PhD work
- Guilt from living far away from my family and friends
- My night-guard (what I wear at night to protect my teeth from grinding) is too thin and doesn't provide enough support
- I got a sports massage 3 days prior and the therapist worked too much on my shoulders
- 1 day prior, with sore shoulders from the massage, I did a shoulder-specific lifting routine
- Walking around the city while wearing a heavy backpack
All of this and my neck just went "Nope, I'm done here!" and seized up.
A learning experience
This neck pain forced me to relax. It hurt to walk for more than 10 minutes at a time and it even hurt to sit. I couldn't lift weights. I was forced to meditate, which I never do. I was forced to read for pleasure, which I never do anymore. I was forced to accept the pain.
Can I tell you a secret?
My first thought on Friday, while I was in tears trying to push myself to a sitting position from my pillow, was: "I would take this pain over anxiety any day."
How insane is that? I would rather be in so much neck pain that it hurt to breathe rather than ever feel anxious again.
When I sat back (well, not literally) and reviewed this thought, I had a new thought: "Kelly, you don't have control over this neck pain. You can only wait for it to be over. What you do have control over is your anxiety. Neck pain and anxiety both cause suffering, but you don't have to sit and wait for anxiety to go away. You can fix it and make it go away now."
This new thought, in addition to forced relaxation (that's an oxymoron, I know), has helped change my mindset moving forward. It's helped me slow down, because my mind was going 1,000 miles a minute and I was unhappy.
I saw a physical therapist on Sunday because the pain hadn't gone away. He assessed me and then told: "I can manipulate the tension," and he showed with his hands that he meant to do it slowly, "Or I can MANipulate it." My body went cold. I knew what he meant. Crrrrack!
"Okay. Do it," I said as I started shivering with nerves.
He held my head in his hands and began to move my head gently. "Let go," he commanded. "Let go."
When I let go, he moved my head in one quick motion. I felt and heard the *crack* and that was it. My neck moved better. I could turn my head—I could turn it more than I ever could—even before Friday. There was no pain. It was like magic.
In the least cheesy, cliche way possible, my advice to you is to let go. Let go so you can move on, so the tension can release, and you can come out on the other side stronger than before.
Don't underestimate the power of the mind-body connection
It's just as important to keep your mental health in check as it is to keep your physical health in check. If you aren't taking care of your mind, you could very well end up with a sniff neck, like yours truly.
This is one of the main reasons why I train. I started because I wanted to look better, but the gym made me anxious. There were so many people watching me and not enough places to escape and hide to. (That's my anxiety talking.) I had to build mental strength to do what I do now. If I don't have a positive mentality, my workout suffers. Many times I've come to the gym in a crumby mood and it resulted in a shitty workout.
It starts with your mind.
Learn how to take control of it, because it can very easily take control of you.
Think about how powerful our mind-body connection is. If my stress can cause my neck to seize up, then what can my happiness do for my body? That's a loaded question but I will leave you with this—I perform my best lifts when I arrive at the gym in a happy mood.
How will you take control today?
Further reading for those of you interested in learning how to take control of your mind-body connection.
My sister, Heather healed her spinal injury without surgery. I was there to witness her incredible mental strength that ultimately cured her. Read about her experience here: They Said "You Need Surgery", I said "Fuck Off"
*Shout out to Balanced, in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. I was lucky enough to get a last-minute appointment on a Sunday afternoon and received incredible treatment by Pat. Balanced offers a number of services, including acupuncture and pilates.