I started having really bad lower back pain about two months ago. It started as a dull, aching pain, but then got progressively worse and worse.
There was one week where it hurt so bad that I couldn’t even sleep at night.
Since then I’ve stopped working out and started doing some stretches I found online that would supposedly help.
The pain has gotten a little bit better, but as I’m writing this article it still hurts.
I’ve never had any back pain before, so last week I finally decided to go to the campus health center to make sure that it wasn’t something more serious than a strained muscle.
I had x-rays taken and the doctor said everything looked fine. She recommended some physical therapy to get me back in shape.
Guess it was just a muscle problem after all. I was relieved. I called my parents to tell them the good news.
But then a few days later, I got this message from the doctor:
I thought we had already done that…
I gave her a call back. She was busy, so the receptionist left a message.
You can imagine the thoughts that were running through my head.
An hour later I finally got a call back.
Doctor: “Hi Stefano, so in taking another look at your x-rays, I found that there is evidence of narrowing disc spaces in your spine.”
Me: “Oh. So, what does that mean?”
Doctor: “Well, that’s not really my specialty. You’ll need to see an orthopedist.”
Me: “What’s the treatment for something like this?”
Doctor: “You’ll have to see an orthopedist. In the meantime, you should stay away from lifting weights.”
What the fuck.
Narrowing of disc spaces? That did not sound good.
I started doing some research online. I found out that this is a degenerative disease known as spinal stenosis, a fairly common disease… in people over the age of 50.
My thoughts started spiraling out of control.
Why was this happening to me?
What did I do to cause this?
Was I born with this?
Am I going to need surgery?
Will I ever be able to play sports again?
The rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking about how terrible this was. I kept imaging different all the different ways it was going to ruin my life.
I was freaking out.
Until I remembered…
I’m Not Going To Die From This
As bad as this situation seemed, I realized that I was making it worse than it actually was. I was creating these crazy stories in my head that weren’t even real.
I’m currently reading a book called The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday, and in it Ryan talks about how the only way to survive and overcome obstacles is by keeping our emotions in check—by keeping our nerves steady no matter how much the external events may fluctuate.
Ryan says, “If an emotion can’t change the condition or the situation we’re dealing with, it is likely an unhelpful emotion. Or, quite possibly, a destructive one.”
He gives an example of how a deer’s brain tells it to run when it senses a threat. Without giving it’s instinctive impulse a second thought, the deer runs. Sometimes right into traffic.
But as humans, we can question that impulse. We don’t have to act purely out of instinct. We can examine the threat before we act.
Unlike animals, we have the ability to think rationally and to act logically, instead of impulsively. We are able to focus our energy exclusively on solving problems, rather than reacting to them.
Evolution has left our brains wired to respond to danger, but in most of our day-to-day struggles, we are not in life-or-death situations. Whatever problem you’re currently dealing with, you’re probably not going to die from it.
Whenever you catch yourself starting to freak out over something, whenever you feel that anxiety begin to creep up on you, stop. Ask yourself, “Am I going to die from this?”
It might help to repeat it over and over: I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this.
Once we are able to control our emotions, then we are able to see what’s actually there in front of us, not what we think is there or what should be there.
The Difference Between Observing and Perceiving
Ryan explains how in every situation, there is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.
The observing eye sees simply what is there, without distractions, exaggerations, or misperceptions. The perceiving eye sees more than what is there—it sees “insurmountable obstacles” or “major setbacks” or even just “issues.”
The phrase “this happened and it is bad” is a combination of an observation and a perception. The observation—“this happened”—is objective. The perception—“it is bad”—is subjective.
Just because your mind tells you that something is terrible or catastrophic or unwanted doesn’t mean you have to agree.
Ryan poses two great questions:
1. “In our own lives, how many problems seem to come from applying judgments to thing we don’t control, as though there were a way they were supposed to be?”
2. “Is our perspective truly giving us perspective or is it what’s actually causing the problem?”
It’s so much better to see things as they truly, actually are (with the observing eye), not as we’ve made them in our minds (with the perceiving eye).
Objectivity Means Removing “You”
Just think about how easy it is to give others advice. The solutions to their problems are crystal clear to us. But when we’re dealing with our own problems, we have no idea what to do. We’re lost, confused, blind.
The reason we’re able to give others advice so easily is because we are able to observe their situation as an objective third party. We save the pity and complaints and excuses for our own life.
But there’s an easy way to get rid of the baggage.
Whenever you’re facing an obstacle, remove “you”—the subjective part—from the equation. Take your situation and pretend it is happening to someone else. What advice would you give them? Suddenly you will know exactly what to do.
Sometimes all it takes is a small change in perspective to change how we see obstacles.
We make our obstacles as big as we want them to be.
In isolation, obstacles may seem unfair and unbearable. But when you remove yourself and look at the bigger picture, you see that everyone faces obstacles and that others have faced much more intimidating ones than your own.
At the end of the day, we cannot change the obstacles themselves—this is out of our control. As the saying goes, “shit happens.”
What we can do, and all that really matters, is how we see them and how we react to them.
Give Yourself Clarity, Not Sympathy
Nobody wants to hear that there’s something wrong with their spine.
Most would consider this very “bad” news.
But right now everything is still up in the air. At this point, I have no idea how serious my condition actually is. There’s no reason to feel sorry for myself, because it doesn’t change the situation, and as long as I keep my mind from being consumed by theoreticals, it hasn’t affected my life in any way.
Until I get an MRI and the orthopedist tells me exactly what’s going on, nothing has really happened yet. There’s no use in freaking out over nothing.
Hopefully I’ll just need a few weeks of physical therapy and that’ll be the end of it.
But if it is something more serious, maybe that’s exactly what I need – maybe this will be an opportunity for me to practice what I’m preaching, to prove to myself that obstacles really are only as big as you make them.
But again, right now, the reality of the situation is that I just don’t know.
As an observer of what’s going on, all I know is that I have an orthopedic appointment in a few hours. There’s no inherent meaning attached to this.
Either way, no matter what I find out at this appointment, I know I’m not going to die from this.
Remember, we decide what story to tell ourselves.
Image Source: flickr – kmillard92