PainScience.com Sensible advice for aches, pains & injuries
 
 

Civilization Survival Tips

Coping with stress and anxiety in the modern world (without drugs)

updated (first published 2002)ARCHIVEDArchived pages are rarely or never updated. Most featured articles on PainScience.com are updated regularly over the years, but not archived pages.
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

The Civilization Survival tips series was originally commissioned by CBC Radio One for “The Early Edition,” and broadcast between September 30 and October 4, 2002. It addresses an audience around Vancouver, but of course almost everything here applies to stressed out people everywhere. There’s a short recording for each segment.

0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

As a massage therapist, it’s my job to keep Lower Mainlanderites going as they struggle to make ends meet in this Canadian paradise, trying to enjoy the beaches and mountains while still earning enough to live here.

Every day I work with people who are stretched like piano wires between these priorities; we come here for the lifestyle and we wind up without the time for it. Vancouver is going, going, gone big city on us — the whole region is no longer the laid-back little Coastal Shangri La that it was for decades. The need for more money, Toronto-style, has been seeping into our community culture. The pace has picked up and the pressure is building. At the same time that our medical system seems to be falling apart, so are we: tension headaches, insomnia, and anxiety, oh my!

The Lower Mainland may be one of the most health-conscious places in the world, but we’re also working sixty-hour weeks and exercising only on weekends, lurching desperately off to the slopes while still creaking from a week in an office chair. Here in Greater Vancouver, we have a unique opportunity for both occupational hazards and the finest weekend warrior injuries anywhere.

But don’t despair! For the next week, I’ll be sharing my Lotusland survival tips with you, twice every morning: ten of the best ideas for taking care of yourself that I’ve come across in my career. Here’s a simple one to start things off. I learned this from a friend many years ago, and it’s still the best question I’ve ever heard. It goes like this: if you’re not having fun … what are you doing?

Civilization Survival Tip No. 2: Walk Like a Dinosaur

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

Here’s a classic calming and grounding exercise I call the “dinosaur walk.” This will slow you down, and it puts a smile on your face, too. All you have to do is walk somewhere today pretending that you have a great, big, heavy tail hanging off your butt.

At first, take just a few steps with a massive imaginary tail, plodding and swaggering like brontosaurus. Once you’ve got the feel of it, tone it down a couple notches so you don’t look like you’re having neurological difficulties. It’s possible to do the dinosaur walk discreetly, except that you may be the only person this side of Abbotsford who isn’t in a flaming hurry. Just walk like nothing could knock you over — short of another brontosaurus.

Do this for at least a block, and see how it changes your mental state. If your nerves don’t simmer down to at least a 3.2 on the Richter scale, I’ll buy your lunch.

Chronic haste is a physiological disaster. It wasn’t always like this, was it? Today, remind yourself how it used to be. Slow down. Just do one worthwhile thing after another. Walk like a dinosaur.

Civilization Survival Tip No. 3: Take Care of You

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

Warning: stress and anxiety have reached critical levels. You have sixty seconds to reach minimum safe relaxation. Warning: stress and anxiety …

Feeling stressed this morning? Here’s what you do:

Step one: stop whatever you’re doing for a minute. Pull over to the side of the road. Fold that laundry later. Put the mouse down and step away from the computer. Just stop. Okay?

Step two: put things in perspective. Whatever’s going on, it could probably be worse. Nothing really matters. All you need is love. At least you have your health. Don’t sweat the little stuff and it’s all little stuff. And so on.

Step three: remind yourself what it feels like to feel good. Remember that? It may have been a while, maybe even years. Take a moment to feel good right now. Do whatever you have to do.

Step four: whatever is going to drag you down and stress you out today, ask yourself: how can I make this lighter? Because it’s just possible that it’s more important to enjoy life than it is to survive it. Could be.

Attention: stress and anxiety alert has been aborted. You may now resume rushing around like a crazy person.

Civilization Survival Tip No. 4: Vibrate

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

Get someone to pound on your back! The technical name for pounding is “tapotement,” a French word for a Swedish massage technique. Massage therapists usually don’t use tapotement because it is taught as “just” a relaxation technique. But there is nothing “just” about relaxing — most people need relaxation more than anything else — and tapotement actually packs therapeutic punch as well.

Vibration has a powerful neurological effect known as “proprioceptive confusion.” Proprioception is your true sixth sense: the sense of position and movement. Shaking confuses that sense, and makes you go limp all over.

More importantly, vibration can knock you out of a rut. I often prescribe it to my clients, asking them to “thoroughly shake each body part” and to “submit to any impulse to twitch, flop, shudder or rattle.” Understandably, people resist anything that seems like a tremor or a twitch. Most Lower Mainlanderites are holding on tightly to something, maybe a lot of things, and unfortunately this leads to the embodiments of emotional rigidity: depression, malaise and even illness.

Fortunately, the kinetic nature of life is hard to suppress, and sooner or later we let off steam and shake with emotion. But why wait? No experience should be shut out or resisted too hard or for too long. You can break free and become a permanent dancer, like a dog wagging his tail with every smile. Ask for a friendly pounding at the breakfast table this morning, or when you get to work today.

Civilization Survival Tip No. 5: Don’t Worry About Water

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

My tip today is to stop worrying about drinking so much water. Ah! I’ve noticed that many people in this part of the world feel naked without a bottle of water close at hand. And if they’re not drinking at least eight glasses of water every day — which they usually aren’t — they’re feeling guilty about it. Does this sound like you? The afflicted generally believe that their optimum health depends on being half-drowned and running to the bathroom every seventeen minutes.

But does it really? As a public service, I want to tell everyone in range of this broadcast that this is one less thing you have to worry about. There is no evidence that you need to make any special effort to drink extra water to be all that you can be. The idea originated a few years ago with a single doctor, Dr. Batmanghelidj, who blames “chronic dehydration” for everything from arthritis to cancer. His claims are all over the internet, and few have bothered to contradict him.

I see the appeal. It’s nice to think that only a few glasses of water stand between you and hydrated perfection. Unfortunately, his book and his website offer no science — instead, they are marvels of marketing designed to sell his “miracle water cure” program. Look him up and decide for yourself.

In truth, your thirst reflex is designed to kick in long before dehydration is a problem. Drink what you want and you’ll be fine. So there’s one less thing for you to worry about today.

Civilization Survival Tip No. 6: Breath Is Life

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

Illustration by Shayne Letain

Good morning, o seekers, o students of life. Everyone take a deep breath.

You’re probably already rolling your eyes. “Taking a breath” seems like such a New Age cliché. But a deep breath is much more than just a way to relax.

Breathing is, in fact, the most universal and useful tool for the exploration of human potential and the self. It holds this status because it is the only major physiological rhythm that is under obvious conscious control.

By manipulating our breath, we can stimulate altered states, which is one of the basic goals of all personal and spiritual growth. Other physiological rhythms are coupled to the breath cycle, and change in concert with it: the tides of cerebrospinal fluids, the clock of your brain, the strength and rate of your heart, and many more.

Breath is your foot in the door to your soul. To the Chinese in their healing wisdom, it is the symbol of life itself, synonymous with spirit, and breathing is like blowing on the coals. It is the first step in the training of yogis, kung fu masters and medicine men with strange powers. Breathing techniques are a part of the arts, sports and most religions. Breathing is better than drugs: breathing is free, easy, powerful, and safe.

So, calmly hyperventilate a little bit today — just a few deep, strong, clear breaths through the mouth will do it. Get a bit light-headed. Feel the buzz. Stir your blood with unfamiliar oxygen.

Civilization Survival Tip No. 7: The Rural Cure

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

Several years ago I spent a summer living in a shack on Salt Spring Island, a kind of super vacation. For a while, I achieved escape velocity from the urban lifestyle. I generally did sweaty farming things in the morning and then worked on my hammock technique all afternoon.

That’s the biggest difference between here and there, you see: pace. Island time isn’t just slower: it’s in another dimension. Living in downtown Vancouver today, I wonder what exactly was I thinking in that hammock? Where was my head? For pity’s sake, I could have been researching my investments! If I’d had any! All that precious time wasted!

Another distinction between urban and rural life is ambition: namely, there isn’t much of it past the city limits. Consider my charmingly unmotivated girlfriend. In the city, this is a glaring fault, as obvious as a second head. She belongs in the country, where freaks like her are accepted by others of her own kind.

Of course, I’m jealous. I am diseased with speed and ambition. I know that massage therapy, hot tubs, and Wreck Beach can temporarily relieve the symptoms of workaholism — but the only real cure is to spend a season working for room and board on a farm. This is drastic action, I know, but I challenge you to take the idea seriously. If you’re truly exhausted with diesel fumes and noise pollution, a rural pilgrimage might be just the thing. This is your life we’re talking about, after all. And who knows: you might even stay out there.

Civilization Survival Tip No. 8: Be Present, Be Curious

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

Illustration by Shayne Letain

Wisdom is probably incompatible with being in a flaming hurry. Where’s the fire? Why can’t we remember that “it’s all little stuff”? Quiet contemplation is the default position for all spiritual seekers throughout the ages — and yet the polar opposite of modern city life.

Here in the Lower Mainland, nearly all my clients have something like shell shock from stress and speed. We are moving half asleep through the world, as if everything was happening underwater. Many don’t even notice until they get a massage, when they tell me, amazed, “I had no idea I felt like this!”

Unfortunately, quiet contemplation is almost impossible around here. And coffee isn’t the solution. The goal is presence: the quality of being wide awake in the universe and involved in your own life — responsive and responsible, an active and attentive participant, rather than a passive victim.

Presence is exemplified in curiosity. When people are present, they are inevitably curious as well: the world is simply too interesting. If you’re not curious, you’re just not paying attention. This is the canary in your mind. If you’re finding you don’t give a damn about anything except your next R&R, you’re in trouble.

To cultivate presence, cultivate curiosity: respond to everything and every person with questions. Questions tend to generate more questions. Permit no contact or experience to be trivial. It is not easy to do this, of course, but it is a worthy goal — possibly even the ultimate goal.

Civilization Survival Tip No. 9: Run Like a Dog

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

There are walkers and runners on Vancouver’s seawall by the thousands. Most stick to the path of least resistance without a second thought, rarely touching the grass or sand. This is all wrong, wrong, wrong!

At the beginning of the week I recommend that you walk like a dinosaur. Today, I challenge you to run like a dog. Dogs set a good example for us once again. Watch how dogs run: all over the place. Over, under, around and through. Back and also forth. The same way you ran when you were eight. In a word, they run playfully.

The body is an all-terrain vehicle, built for cross-country, and we suffer when we tread only on concrete and treadmills. On such surfaces, your body is subjected to exactly the same mechanical forces with every strike of the foot. This strains some structures and leaves others unstimulated by any stress at all, leading to a loss of well-rounded fitness and significant vulnerability to injury of the path.

You don’t have to learn to catch a Frisbee in your mouth to work on this problem. Just get off the concrete every chance you get! Nearly everywhere you go in the Lower Mainland there is green space. Step on it! Run on the grass! Seek out hills and stairs, logs and curbs to step over, hop onto benches. The sidewalk is not your path: everything else is. Urban cross-country! And you might consider doing it playfully, too.

Civilization Survival Tip No. 10: Find Your Own Way

Listen to this segment: 0.5 MB audio file MP3 format

Last year I moderated a public forum in which we addressed the question, “Is civilization bad?” About thirty participants agreed that things don’t look so good. Not only are we going to hell in a hand basket, we seem to be doing it in a rush, like we’ve got to wreck everything on the planet by 2010 at the absolute latest.

A lot of people, particularly here on the West Coast, have turned to the wisdom of the ancients and the so-called New Age for clues about how to stay sane and healthy. And sometimes we go overboard. If it’s 1200-years-old, it must be good. Right?

Don’t bet on it.

It’s true, some of the masters and mystics, old and new, have got impressive credentials: but look to them only as a source of ideas. Learn their rules, and then cheerfully break them. That’s what they did — that’s how they got to be masters and mystics in the first place.

Canadians tend to be spiritually neurotic. We don’t trust ourselves; we don’t think we’re good enough to be masters and mystics ourselves. We want pearls of wisdom from fancy gurus. I’m not saying we don’t have a lot to learn from the best of them — we do. But it’s also time to come of age, spiritually.

Canadians can be wise, too. We can look inward and find calm, perspective and meaning. No, really — Bob and Doug Mackenzie were smarter than they looked. There is peace of mind, Canadian-style. Relax with pride tonight.


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.