Disrupting Stomach Pain, Disrupting the Road to Hell

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The Western world is so backwards that a whole industry arose out of mitigating pain from intrinsically painful activities. Hey, I can understand aspirin but ergonomic wrist supports? Desk chairs that tilt or flex or destabilize?

Why not just design things that aren’t going to induce repetitive stress injuries in the first place?

Admittedly better design is happening. But there is a deeply engrained trend in our culture to ram through pain or to just deal with it as opposed to having a different relationship with pain.

Of course none of this was on my mind when M came to the table, interested but looking exhausted. He was the classic guy in a suit with a mild paunch and a purple power tie who looked like he had been awake for three days but even more than that looked generally beaten upon by the world.

But he still had a good head of hair. M stroked his head and whispered as he spoke, almost embarrassed by his situation but still with a bit of humor. He needed some coaxing to talk to me but was intrigued.

 

I’m, uh, working in real estate. It’s my mother’s company. I’ve been there 15 years. Maybe 15 years too long. I probably need therapy. I am good at my job, but I am locked into it financially and also out of a sense of obligation to my mom. I can deal with that part – sort of.

Like I said, I probably need therapy. But I walk to work every day and on the way I get crazy stabbing pains in my stomach. I have gotten used to it but it is terrible.

I tell him that he had mentioned therapy a few times and wondered how seriously he had considered it, it sounded like there was lots of stress mixed in with some other stuff that was making his life complicated.

M said that he has been looking into it, doctors have told him “don’t stress out so much” but that was little help. Again he asked for my creative approach.

I told him that the issues with his mother I would leave alone since they were more to the realm of the psychologist. And that I would stick to where I do my best work – looking at things newly…so I wanted to talk with him about the stomach pain.

I asked him how far he walked to work six blocks) and if walked the same way there and back (yes) and if he knew exactly when the pain started and if the pain retreated in the same way it arrived when he leaves (yes).

Close your eyes. Imagine your walk to work. Imagine what you see on your walk. Which stores are on your left? Your right? see them. See the traffic. See the landmarks, see the buildings and the shape of their cornices and support columns. Which block does the pain start? What store are you in front of when the first tickle of pain stabs you?

He sat there with his eyes closed and his mouth and eyes tightened in concentration. He nodded his head left or right in a tiny motion as he noted certain landmarks out loud and in his head. After he considered it for a while he said that the pain kicked in on the corner of the third block as he was about to cross onto the fourth block – every time. WOW!

So I offered him the possibility that he had essentially ground a groove into the sidewalk that read “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter” a road to hell for all intent and purpose.

He consented that he dreaded those last two blocks.

If the route that he took was the route to hell, perhaps a new route might open things up. So I told him to take a long and circuitous walk to work. Furthermore he might try a new way to work and back each day for two weeks or so to break the pattern. It was a way to start to break up the expectations of what that walk meant.

“But” he asked “what if the pain starts up?”

If the pain starts up take a few physical steps back so that you are out of the pain activation range and hold your breath for as long as you can as you walk, again to disrupt your thinking when you hit a stressful situation.

He said

This actually sounds really good. I could use the extra walking for sure. Maybe I’ll see something interesting along the way! Or meet someone. I am going to do this! Thanks!

It would be false to say that his whole demeanor changed but he was less depleted after we spoke. He was more energetic and open. The fact that he saw a possibility to disrupt this previously invisible mental pattern was remarkable.

M obviously had other stuff going on but that the fact that he was open to looking at his habitual response to his commute was wonderful to me. I hope he tried it. Sometimes those new horizons put our regular lives into a new context. There may be a method here to apply in other aspects of a life. When we find that we are experiencing pain or difficulties, rather than just plowing on or numbing it away, slow down and find out exactly where and when it starts and then disrupt the traditional next step.

Two people who write about this process of disruption quite well are Luke Williams of the site disruptive-thinking.com and the truly excellent book Disrupt and Susan Alexander of the site gooddisruptivechange.com. You should check out them and their work to discover other aspects, applications and outcomes of and from disruption.

If you think a conversation or a creative approach like this could be of use to you where you are now…

please book a session with me today.

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16 comments
Tessa Zeng
Tessa Zeng

Matt, you have a serious ability to intercept what to most is just another mundane fact weighing them down, and make the brain turn itself around. You don't just offer new creativity- you turn the problem itself into a solution. I adore it so much.

C. A. Kobu
C. A. Kobu

You've offered him a really creative solution. I'm sure M will start observing himself and be more aware of the hidden links between his emotions, thoughts and his body.

I especially like the technique of holding the breath while walking. It's a simple but very useful technique to disrupt your thinking in stressful situations.

I'll check out the sites of Luke Williams and Susan Alexander. Thank you for the information.

C. A. Kobu
C. A. Kobu

You've offered him a really creative solution. I'm sure M will start observing himself and be more aware of the hidden links between his emotions, thoughts and his body.

I especially like the technique of holding the breath while walking. It's a simple but very useful technique to disrupt your thinking in stressful situations.

I'll check out the sites of Luke Williams and Susan Alexander. Thank you for the information.

Pema Teeter
Pema Teeter

Will you please land a regular column in the NYT?
Great, thanks.
x,
P

Pema Teeter
Pema Teeter

Will you please land a regular column in the NYT?
Great, thanks.
x,
P

Susan Alexander
Susan Alexander

Matt:

Thank you for including me in this post. It is an honor to see my name and blog mentioned in the same sentence with Luke.

Your best work is indeed, as you say, "looking at things newly." You're also a very powerful observer. I agree with what you wrote, which was helping M see the POSSIBILITY of disrupting his old pattern.

It's really not enough (as doctors and so many of us do) to tell people that they need to stop being so stressed. Most people already know that, so reminders aren't particularly useful. It IDEAS as to how to go about it that are needed, and not just the usual ones.

Which is where you come in! Great post. Thank you again for including me.

Susan

Susan Alexander
Susan Alexander

Matt:

Thank you for including me in this post. It is an honor to see my name and blog mentioned in the same sentence with Luke.

Your best work is indeed, as you say, "looking at things newly." You're also a very powerful observer. I agree with what you wrote, which was helping M see the POSSIBILITY of disrupting his old pattern.

It's really not enough (as doctors and so many of us do) to tell people that they need to stop being so stressed. Most people already know that, so reminders aren't particularly useful. It IDEAS as to how to go about it that are needed, and not just the usual ones.

Which is where you come in! Great post. Thank you again for including me.

Susan

Rachel
Rachel

You are such a cool dude...and I love the creative response...its the future!
Rx

Rachel
Rachel

You are such a cool dude...and I love the creative response...its the future!Rx

mstillman
mstillman

woah. that is amazing praise. Thank you so much Tessa. wow.

mstillman
mstillman

Happily given. Susan and Luke offer great material. Luke is oriented more towards business but it is applicable elsewhere.

I am delighted that you appreciated the approach I offered. That link you mentioned between the thoughts in the mind and the body is under explored in most of us.

Jasmine
Jasmine

I second this. What would NYC do without you? Not to mention me?

mstillman
mstillman

I am about to tweet the request to Bill Keller right now.

mstillman
mstillman

So happy to include you in the post. The power of "good disruptive change" or even "bad disruptive change" is so overlooked. We are conditioned for security and regularity so much so that even when we travel the tendency in society is to eliminate any sense of traveling for the safe of security - same restaurants? check. same amenities? same internal air temperature? check. This is the paradox of change...we want change but we only know past experiences so we project our pasts as our vision for change. No wonder he couldn't cope with his stress.

Susan Alexander
Susan Alexander

Well said, Matt: "we project our pasts as our vision for change."

Something I was reading today is dead on: Michael Gelb's book, More Balls Than Hands. He talks a lot about what happens when we try entirely new things - we make the inevitable mistakes, and we eventually make some progress. It's this process that ultimately leads to confidence that we can: 1) carry on with that new thing - whatever it is -and get to more progress; and 2) get to progress when we try other new things as well.

It's helpful to know that this is how it works, i.e. the simple idea that we get better and better at things we try and work on. Best to get started with reasonably safe things, like taking a new route to the office, and work our way from there.

Thanks again, Matt. Great post. Happy to be a part of it.

Susan

Susan Alexander
Susan Alexander

Well said, Matt: "we project our pasts as our vision for change."

Something I was reading today is dead on: Michael Gelb's book, More Balls Than Hands. He talks a lot about what happens when we try entirely new things - we make the inevitable mistakes, and we eventually make some progress. It's this process that ultimately leads to confidence that we can: 1) carry on with that new thing - whatever it is -and get to more progress; and 2) get to progress when we try other new things as well.

It's helpful to know that this is how it works, i.e. the simple idea that we get better and better at things we try and work on. Best to get started with reasonably safe things, like taking a new route to the office, and work our way from there.

Thanks again, Matt. Great post. Happy to be a part of it.

Susan

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