To a large extend, chronic pain patients seek help not because they have pain but because they are suffering. And we have a lot of people living in pain in Singapore.
According to the GSK 2017, four in ten people in Singapore experience body pain every week.
So, today we are going to talk about how your brain works and how you can use non-fluffy compassion to help unleash your full potential.
Understanding how your brain works under stress
Your brain is designed to keep you alive.
Sometimes it works well in our favour and on other occasions not so much. If we could take a step back to understand the survival mechanism that is inbuilt into it, our life experiences may start to make more sense.
Let’s take for example the threat or perceived-threat response. We go on this auto-pilot mode that is primed for us to survive if we are to meet with a sabertooth tiger. You have to admit it’s pretty cool.
The threat of losing may also work well in our favour. It induces a drive or motivation to take action. This is probably why the kiasu mindset is so embedded in the Singapore die-die-must-succeed culture.
According to revolution history, our emotions have been around way before our capacity to think.
Fear primes our body to take action for the purpose of keeping us alive while contentment gives us a sense of a safety and that it’s okay to relax.
However, our innate response to fear today lead to few meaningful outcomes.
Just think of the first presentation you did in front of a room full of strangers. Your heart rate was rising. You start to feel flushed.
Your body is ready to run or to fight. However, what is expected of you in that situation is to remain calm, confident, and to speak like a boss.
Instead of fighting a sabertooth tiger, you end up fighting yourself.
The fear of missing out also doesn’t always lead to the best results: A study examining kiasuism found no association between kiasu behaviour and academic performance. When it comes to satisfaction, people who exhibit kiasu behaviours were more likely to be dissatisfied.
The paper suggests that being kiasu makes you less contented with NO advantages in outcomes.
This is our brain in action. We must be willing to accept this is what our brain does to us and accept that its intention, however out of touch, is to help us to survive.
Understanding why your brain craves belonging
We like to think that we are independent free-spirits and that we don’t need other people in our lives. However, research is suggesting that that is not true.
All us have a social brain and a logical brain.
The logical brain, as the name suggests, helps us process information and make decisions in a logical fashion.
The social brain, however, influences our decision-making process by considering what would people think of you.
If you have a social media account, you would be familiar with this. We care about how we look in the photos on social media because we care about what others would think of it.
You may disagree but think of how comfortable we are with keeping “ugly” selfies in our phone. Because the odds of other people seeing this photo is slim, we are comfortable with letting it sit on my phone.
We innately care a lot about what other people think.
We want to fit in. We want to not get rejected.
It makes sense because from an evolutionary viewpoint, it is important that you belong to a tribe. You don’t want to be cast out from your community because, back in the day, there is no chance you can survive out there by yourself.
The social brain is particularly obvious in high performance sports. If you watch Formula 1: Drive to Survive on Netflix, you would see multiple drivers saying that they are not afraid of dying. When they walk out of a crash, you often hear them being angry rather than afraid.
In the interviews with drivers who had a crash or poor performance, they would talk about being embarrassed. Often within that you will hear subtleties that they care most about what their team or fans think of their work. More than they care about their lives!
This is the social brain at play.
(It is totally normal.)
Maybe you think you are not like that. You care more about yourself than what other people think.
As true as that may be, we all have moments when we don’t want to let our bosses down or our loved ones down.
I even had clients who lied to me because they don’t want to let their chiropractor down.
We are social beings and we care about what other people think of us. To a huge extend that is who we are because that’s how our brain works.
What is compassion?
When we think of compassion, we think of some be-nice-to-yourself fluffy thing that may not really mean much. If you are a corporate executive, the idea of compassion may not be very palatable to you.
For the rest of this blog post, I would like to invite you to keep an open mind. In the very unlikely event that you are not convinced by how compassion can help you, you should at least be able to understand compassion from a different perspective.
The best place for me to start is to look at Paul Gilbert’s compassion-focused therapy (CFT).
According to Paul’s work, compassion is about a sensitivity to the suffering of yourself and others, and a commitment to relieve and prevent it.
That is to say that suffering does happen but you can take again to address it should you choose to.
How does that sound?
When you see some one in a hurry to get into the lift and you decide that you would hold the door open for him/her, that is compassion. To be compassionate, for most parts, is a choice.
Again, this is not a being nice to yourself or others in a fluffy way discussion. It’s about recognising suffering and coming to realise that you can do something about it.
Doesn’t matter if you are a F1 driver or a C-Suite executive at a Fortune 500 company, I am willing to bet that there are areas in your life you wish were easier.
Understanding emotion regulation systems from a performance perspective
From a big picture point of view, Paul Gilbert looks at the human brain as interactions between three systems. The threat system, the drive system, and the contentment system.
It’s really, really important to understand this because, as a high-achiever, you want to know play the system rather than let the system play you.
We are all familiar with the threat system. It’s the fight or flight response.
Beyond that, we humans are a little more special. We worry, we imagine, we ruminate. In that sense, we have the unique capacity to creatively worry about “worries” that are actually not real/present.
“What if I … instead?”
All of us are guilty of this.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal but our physiological system do respond to our thoughts.
Just thinking about something stressful is enough to bring your heat rate up even though there’s nothing to be worry about.
To a large extend, to ruminate over made-up fears of events that may not happen is a waste of our resources.
The drive system is about the positive emotions and the sense of purpose. It gets us up in the morning to want to do things, to achieve things.
High performers are excellent with their drive system. In some cases, they may have too much of drive leading to over-training in athletes or making poor decisions under stress.
The highly-publicised 2018 Azerbaijan GP crash between Red Bull teammates Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo is probably a great example of poor decision making between two highly-driven athletes who only want to win.
Both drivers were found to be at fault and were reprimanded by F1’s governing body. At the point of the accident when Ricciardo hit the back of Verstappen, they were in fifth and fourth place respectively.
Daniel Ricciardo had his goals set at winning the world championship but found himself as the second driver for team Red Bull. Max Verstappen was recognised as one of the youngest upcoming drivers to win the world championship. The teammates were fighting against each other for the same goal.
It is true our drive can lead us to great results but we must be willing to acknowledge that an overdrive can just as easily backfire on us.
While most of us do not compete on the F1 grid, we are not unfamiliar with over-doing.
As of January 2022, burnout would be considered a legitimate medical condition.
If our drive to do more and achieve more is motivated by a fear of failing, our threat system kicks in to fuel the drive response. The end result is doing more and more and more with little to no consideration for breaks or recovery. This doesn’t always work well in our favour.
This is where being compassionate comes in.
Our own voice is usually self-critical. Without realising it, even in cases of chronic pain experiences, we shame ourselves.
We tell ourselves that we are injured because we don’t stretch enough.
We tell ourselves that we are in pain because we don’t sit in the right posture.
We unknowingly and unnecessarily shame and blame ourselves for our pain experiences. The curious thing is most of these narratives are not even true – stretching doesn’t reduce your risk of injuries the same way sitting in a good posture is not associated with reduced pain experiences.
This is why having a compassionate voice can be tangibly useful.
As you are probably thinking right now, the “self-condemning” voice is not without value. It does on occasion identify the room for improvement and helps us with our motivation.
The more important lesson is how can we take action to recognise this voice and to manage it so it doesn’t backfire on you.
Remember, our brain responses – no matter how out of touch – are designed to help us survive.
Bringing awareness to our default-mode narratives
If anyone was to use one of our default-mode narratives on us, we will probably challenge them.
I am sure you do not accept negative and meaningless feedback such as ‘you are useless’ or ‘you won’t make it’ from your superiors at work or your trusted friends.
Yet at the same time, these are the type of things that we say to ourselves all the time.
So, how can we recognise this?
If we are able to recognise our own narratives, we have a better chance of challenging or changing them.
Journaling your experiences
|Date||Experience||Emotions||Thoughts||Impulse / Reactive Behaviour|
|1 June 2020||I sent the draft proposal instead of the final proposal to my superior||Anger||“I am so stupid.”||Sent a 1000-word email to apologise and explain why it happened|
|2 June 2020||Couldn’t get Zoom to work for a major client meeting||Frustration||“I am so useless.”||Ashamed for the rest of the meeting with the client|
|3 June 2020||Missed my HIIT class for the first time since working from home||Disappointment||“I am so lazy.”||Decided that I can’t commit to keeping it and I should give up|
I know, I know. Most of us see journaling as something that we only do in school. Surprisingly, I never got down to journaling till I started my own chiropractic practice.
When we put things down into writing, we don’t have to process or remember as much information. The extra bandwidth is remarkably liberating. If you don’t believe me, you should check out the BuJo community.
Just this weekend, I realised I have completed all the things I planned to do for the week. Without committing my plans ahead into a planner, I would always find more things to do when I have free time. This is an over-drive burnout waiting to happen (more on this later).
I think this was the first time in my life when I actually finished everything I needed to do. This is completely bizarre – I have spent most of my life thinking I am lazy and under-doing only because I have NO AWARENESS of how much I had done.
Likewise, if you were to put your experiences down on paper, you would be able to take a big picture view of your own narratives.
The journaling exercise is simple. All you have to do is to identify the threat, recognise the thoughts AND emotions you experience during the “threat”, and describe the impulse reaction.
I’ll suggest doing this daily for two weeks.
If you start to notice your thoughts, you’d have a better chance of challenging or changing them.
When we start to list the threats we face daily and to examine our autopilot responses, we can raise awareness of where we are with our emotional regulation. Are we in balance or out of balance?
With practice, you would be able to catch yourself in the act of being unfair to yourself.
For example, I just caught myself calling myself stupid for being stuck on one of the earlier points.
It’s pretty amazing.
How to balance ourselves with compassion?
If you are a leader in your workplace, you may want to consider that 80% of Singapore employees prefer working from home.
We all have our challenges one way or another. All of us suffer, albeit some more so than others.
We all are familiar with self-care. Health organisations in Singapore and around the world recognise that. We have recommendations on how much exercise you need a week to how many hours you need to sleep.
All of these are clinical recommendations focused on you taking care of yourself.
No one is saying that you should be lazy.
What we are saying is that your recovery should match your output. It’s about finding a sweet spot and optimising our survival-brain responses to help us thrive in the modern-day living.
Dan Abrahams, a high performance sports psychologist, used a stretch dial vs a support dial analogy to explain this balancing act.
If you want to work more hours, put yourself in a higher stress environment, you have to also match that with your recovery.
According to him, high performers are excellent with being conscientious. This means you have a capacity to maximise all the marginal gains so things work out well for you. This is the stretch dial. When you turn the stretch dial up, the support dial must increase accordingly.
This means spending time for your friends and family for the love and nourishment. This means quietening your mind with mindfulness practice so you get to relax into de-stress. This means adequate sleep, which arguably can only happen if you allow yourself to feel safe, for rest and recovery.
It’s easy to get carried away with our passion. When we are in the flow, we forget that our resources are limited. We forget that burnout is a real consequence. We forget that beyond the drive system, there also is a contentment system that needs to be nourished.
Pushing more and pushing harder is not always better. Sure you can work 24/7, how many days can you keep this up for before your performance starts to take the toll?
Consider sustainability as you turn the support dial up.
Take your downtime seriously. Being able to use your brain in a different way is just as important as using it for work-work-work.
If you do the right things to manage the threat and drive system with compassion, you will get better outcomes.
Do we perform our best when not under threat?
LinkedIn has Khyl Ty-Rhys to manage their wellness programs across APAC. They operate on a human performance framework that seeks to address thoughts, breathing, hydration, nutrition, movement, and rest.
Google has a mindfulness-based leadership program design aimed developing human connection and acting with compassion.
When we look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the state of flow, it’s about traits such as concentration, clarity, ease, control – there’s no headspace for fear or anxiety.
Compassion is not about rainbows and unicorns. It’s about recognising your sufferings and taking action to find safety and nourishment. In doing so, you improve your performance outcomes!
Being compassionate allows us to avoid doing unhelpful things that will not benefit us in the long-term.
Research is suggesting that we perform best when you have fun. It’s about reducing the threat stimulus. It’s about coming to work because you love it. You are enjoying your work.
If you find yourself unwilling to return to work, perhaps this may be a good time to start journaling your experiences and turn the compassion dial up.
Applying compassion to chronic pain
Seeking treatment for your chronic pain in itself can be a self-compassionate action.
That doesn’t mean that recovery is easy or the easy way out.
It’s also not about giving in to your pain because you are weak (hint hint: default mode narratives). It’s about hijacking how your brain works so you can achieve your full potential.
If you are interested in turning your life around so you are no longer at the mercy of your aches and pain, book in an appointment with Square One Active Recovery to discover the difference the right care can make. With our solution-foused approaching to problem-solving chronic pain, you can get sustainable and long-term results from as little as four to seven visits.
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Based in Singapore, Square One Active Recovery offers treatments with a very big difference. We deliver more than just spinal adjustments and we are the only truly holistic pain and injury care provider in Singapore. Not getting results from your chiropractor, TCM doctor or physiotherapist? Talk to us and find out how we can take your recovery to the next level.