I suffer from lower back pain. Thankfully it is not constant and is often tied to my controllable behaviors. The better I take care of myself, the less pain I experience. Today is one of the days where I hurt, and I have been thinking about how that affects me. While pain is necessary as a safeguard against us unintentionally harming ourselves, when it is chronic the results are decidedly unhealthy.
Pain triggers the sympathetic nervous system to prepare you to fight, flee, or freeze. It does this by increasing or heightening your awareness to signals and reducing your capacity to address things cognitively so your instinctual functions can be primary. In other words, you stop thinking and just react. This is a perfect response to a normal threat, like jerking your hand back when you get burned. However, if pain is chronic this system stays engaged, leading to real psychological changes.
Chronic pain is often associated with emotional changes, anxiety, depression, heightened sensitivity, and reduced cognitive ability. Chronic pain and the resulting prolonged stress response can also lead to heart issues, gastrointestinal changes, and more. Simply put, being in pain all the time is bad enough on its own, but it unfortunately leads to many other problems.
As a leader it is unlikely that you have very much control over an individual’s chronic pain. You do however have significant control over their environment when they are in your community. This is critical because of this little fact: physical pain and emotional pain exist on almost the same circuitry of the nervous system, with common brain systems involved. That’s right. IF people are constantly mentally or emotionally stressed (read chronic emotional pain) they have a similar response as they would to chronic physical pain.
Providing a healthy and safe (mental, emotional, and physical) environment is a key function of great leadership. Saying we care is at best meaningless, and at worst hypocrisy and abuse, if we are unwilling to create a community where people feel safe and respected. It’s the right thing to do. Period. However, psychological safety has some significant benefits.
First, let’s define psychological safety. People are psychologically safe when they feel free to express their thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns without being attacked, rejected, embarrassed, or punished. Just a few of the benefits of a psychologically safe community are:
- Increased confidence – people focus on positive outcomes rather than potential failures
- Higher Retention – people are less likely to leave a space where they feel safe
- Increased trust – trust between team members is critical to accomplishing tasks
- Improved creativity and innovation – stress reduces cognition, safety frees the mind to work
- Increased Happiness – increased moral leads to improved performance
When the sympathetic nervous system is functioning properly it shuts down after the threat passes and the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to help calm us down and get us back to normal. Even in a safe community there are bound to be moments of stress and times we feel we are in danger, whether that be physically, mentally, or emotionally. There are a few things we can do to help ourselves calm down and return to a relaxed state:
- Meditation – helps calm the mind and the body
- Breathing exercises – highly recommended because they can work even in the middle of stressful situations that are ongoing
- Progressive muscle relaxation – tensing and relaxing different muscle groups
- Exercise – even a short walk can stimulate the production of endorphins which promote calmness
My back pain will pass. Another visit to the chiropractor and some more time with my trusty heating pad and I will be fine. I’m so grateful my pain isn’t chronic. I am also grateful that I am part of a community that values and cares for its members. We may be temporarily threatened from the outside, but we should never be the source of our own chronic pain. Taking care of myself is how I will keep my back pain from being chronic. Taking caring of each other is how we will create a safe community. That isn’t a pain in the back, it is a relief, and it is the Kimray Way.