by Sharik Peck, PT
In 2019 I found myself in Australia helping athletes from three nations compete in a large track meet. My daughter was competing in the sprinting events. Our conversations are not about winning or losing; we focus on finding joy in the experience and in doing the best we can. Finding joy in the journey has become a theme for our family and for my patients.
Automobile collisions, concussions, head injuries, strokes, chronic pain, tumors, aneurysms —the list goes on and on, but one common theme I have seen in over 25 years as a physical therapist is how fast people can go from happy, healthy, vibrant, and strong to depressed, angry, sullen, irritated, listless, and sad.
The study of the human nervous system and how it recovers from injury and illness has fascinated me. I wanted to know why we often saw two individuals come into the clinic with the same injury, the same forces, the same diagnosis, and seemingly the same accident, and yet never was the healing process the same. Provide the same treatment to both and one of the individuals was likely to get better and one of them was not. What made the difference? Was it the way they were treated in therapy? Was it the way they lived at home? What were their relationships with co-workers and family members? Patterns emerged that helped me in practice and designing treatment approaches. I learned to tiptoe around conditions such as fibromyalgia, trigeminal neuralgia, and migraine headaches and accepted the fact that these conditions would likely slow down the healing process, but I did not understand why.
One thing became clear in those “difficult” cases. There was a powerful emotional component involving the nervous system and affected the healing process that made very little sense to me. Watching my clients after injury, I felt like Spock on “Star Trek” trying to make sense of emotions I did not feel or understand and that did not seem logical. Well, I did what any reasonable person would do, I went back to school to obtain a master’s degree in counseling. I hoped to figure out how to help people through the psychology of an injury and help them learn how to recover better.
Here is what I have learned from 26 years of practice and study, hoping to help people recover from illness and injury:
- Emotions are electro-chemical equations in the nervous system. You can create happy chemicals by thinking of things that make you happy. Perhaps this could account for some of the benefit many people have gained from watching Bob Ross teach important life philosophies while painting “a happy little cloud.” It calms the heart and puts a smile on the face. Those are healing chemicals!
- If you look at the world through a negative lens, you will slow down the healing process. When all we can see is the past, thinking about how good life used to be, we find ourselves wallowing in a depressive state.
- If you find something to be passionate about, you will speed up the healing process. Live in the present, right here, right now, and you will have less of the chemicals of anxiety flowing through your nervous system, elevating your blood pressure, and making it difficult to think.
The balance needed in your nervous system to help you have the best potential to heal is controlled through the parasympathetic nervous system. That is the part of the nervous system dedicated to helping you recover from all of life’s challenges. Your parasympathetic nervous system encourages you to sleep, digest, breathe, and keep your heart beating at a healthy pace. If you actively engage the vagus nerve in the healing process, you will improve sleep, decrease inflammation, reduce pain, and generally feel better. How do you improve functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system? Here are a few ideas to keep you living in the present, free from unnecessary depression and anxiety: try yoga, get a massage, learn to breathe properly, hum, meditate, and keep a gratitude journal. A game face should not be an angry or scary face. For best results, try keeping a smile on the inside and out!
Sharik is the CEO of Rezzimax, LLC., and a practicing physical therapist. He suffered his first major TBI at the age of 17, suffering a sports-related hemmorhagic stroke. He later received a degree in physical therapy from the University of Utah and a master’s degree in counseling from Utah State University. He is passionate about pain relief and developing tools to improve how the nervous system works. Sharik and his family are involved in humanitarian work to relieve suffering. You can reach Sharik at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.rezzimax.com