I came across an interesting article on the Internetrecently about stress and how we respond to it. It referredto two studies in particular, one on rats and the othera study on public servants in Great Britain.
The study on rats, although perhaps being a littlecruel, had some fascinating insights. They took twosets of rats and gave them both electric shocks. Onegroup was given a way of stopping the shocks that theyhad to learn, but the other rats could only endure them.Shortly afterwards the rats were placed together ina different place and shocked again. This time therewas a low wall, which they could jump over to escapethe shocks. The rats that had learned a different wayto escape the previous day quickly discovered this wayout. The group that had no escape previously simplycowered on the floor. Their experience had been oneof helplessness in the face of severe stress, whichhad taught them to not even look for escape. The othergroup learned that there were ways to avoid such stressand so actively sought them out.
The other study was done some years ago over an extendedperiod of time. It looked at people's health, and psychologicalresponses to stress (among many other things), and howthat related to their position in the British PublicService. Generally speaking, the people who were higherup the ladder were healthier, lived longer, dealt withstress far more efficiently, and interestingly enough,had lower incidences of dementia. They also had somecontrol over their work environment and a feeling ofautonomy.
People lower on the ladder were less healthy, hada shorter life expectancy, higher incidence of depression,and a strong belief that they had little or no controlof their work or social environment, and higher ratesof dementia.
I think that this raises some rather interesting questions,the first being "Why does one's ability to handle stressrelate directly to dementia?" Is it another exampleof 'use it or lose it'? If we don't get enough exercise,we get fat and unhealthy. If we do not use our bonesefficiently, we accelerate osteoporosis. If we sit forlong periods in chairs, the beautiful posture of ourchildhood becomes less self supporting, and either droopyor too upright and stiff. So then, if we don't thinkand use our brain to interact actively with our environment,do we lose its functions more quickly as well? Coulda sense of powerlessness accelerate dementia, and couldwe help slow its course by simply thinking creatively?What comes first, an inability to handle stress, orour belief that we can't control the situation?
There will never be a clear cut answer to these questions.But one thing is clear from time immemorial - life rewardsthose who look for ways to control their environmentbetter, and those who do so generally have a betterlife. Those who feel they are slaves to their circumstanceslive shorter, less happy and less healthy lives. Weneed freedom through to the deepest core of our being- the quality and length of our existence depends onit.
So what does this have to do with movement? Giventhe number of bones, joints and muscles our body has,and the billions of neurons dedicated to moving it all,we have a virtually infinite number of ways we couldpotentially move. A very daunting thought! Many of usget overwhelmed going shopping in a large shopping centre,so imagine the stress of having to choose from an infinitenumber of shops, with an infinite number of productlines, and having to buy a certain number of things- immediately! This is the challenge our brains facewhenever we move. In order to move, we need somethingto make sense of this infinite potential, and so weuse pre-programmed patterns of movement, built uponour personal experiences. Essentially, we have learneda particular way of moving (walking, breathing - whatever),and that is simply the way we do it. This is great forexpediency, but not necessarily the most 'perfect' patternof movement from a purely biomechanical perspective.The more restrictive a pattern of movement
, the greater is the strain on the body. Try standingand then stooping forward slightly. Feel how this naturallyuses your back, hamstring and calf muscles more. Itfeels odd, but no doubt you have seen someone who notonly walks that stooped, but perhaps even more so. Sowhy don't they walk more upright? There are millionsof possible reasons, but one thing is certain - it makesperfect sense to them to walk that way, exactly as theway you walk makes perfect sense to you.
So are we destined to be slaves to our movement habits?Are we doomed to a lifetime of arthritic knees, necks,backs, and hips? Are we victims of our circumstances,bad genes, and plum bad luck?
I believe the answer relates back to our ability tohandle stress (of any kind), and our belief in our abilityto change our circumstances.
We can make a choice. We can be the rat that has learnedcircumstances control its life, and that nothing canbe done about it, and, consequently, have a shorter,less healthy and happy life. Alternatively, when confrontedwith difficult circumstances, refuse to accept thatyou are powerless and seek new creative ways to approachthe problem. Einstein reportedly said, "You cannot solvethe problem with the thinking that created the problem".
Movement is an excellent place to start learning,not only how to move better, but also skills to helplook for solutions to seemingly impossible situations.Walk on grass without your shoes. Carry a book on yourhead. Swing your hips when you walk. Sit on the frontof your chair, or an exercise ball, and wriggle likea small child whenever you feel compelled to sit still.It's a good start.
Nick Martin is a qualified physiotherapist and certifiedFeldenkrais practitioner.