[Interview] Stop Chasing Pain: An Alternative Approach To Dealing With Physical Pain
Physical Pain – something we all experience at some point during our training careers, so this month, Dr. “Stop Chasing Pain“ himself, Perry Nickelston, speaks to us about the psychology of pain, the importance of play and how it has culminated in his new book, Stop Chasing Pain: A Vital Guide To Healing Your Body, Moving Well, and Regaining Control of Your Life.
For The Few Who Don’t Know, Can You Tell Us A Little Bit About What You Do?
I’ve always had a passion for helping people, and that’s why I became a chiropractor more than 25 years ago. I only found my way into human movement recently, which is primarily what I do now. Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer and movement saved my life. I was amazed at how something as simple as moving more of yourself more often can do magical things for your mind, body, spirit, health—everything. And that’s my journey right now.
What Is It About Movement That Helped You Recover?
Before I was diagnosed, I was just doing “exercise”. However, while exercise is movement, not all movement is exercise. What that means is that I was going to the gym and doing 45 minutes, three or four days a week and thinking that I was healthy. But I realized how I was living outside of the gym wasn’t healthy. I started to clean up my eating, and I also got into more fundamental primal movements.
I think the reason that it saved my life—and I genuinely think that it did—is that, as human beings, we’re designed to move. And if we don’t move, we slowly begin to die from the inside out. We need to get back into what I call a state of play. Play is where you move without being worried about how you look or whether you’re being judged. It takes your mind off things and relieves stress. If you look at why a lot of people get sick and why health is deteriorating, it is down to stress, our environment and how we think about ourselves.
Was It An “Aha” Moment Or More Of A Progression?
I think it was probably a realization more than anything. When I was sick, I wasn’t able to do my typical workout, and as you know, for people who love to workout, they want to get back to it as soon as possible. But when you can’t, you have to find other alternatives. So I started trying things like yoga, and I began to feel better than I had in my previous 35 years of doing traditional training. I also couldn’t believe how difficult it was. We adapt to what we continuously do, and it can make us really good at something, but not as good at other things. And that’s when the “aha” moment hit me. I started to investigate why it was making such a difference, and it began to click. I kept saying to myself, “It can’t be that simple.” Yet, those simple things were transformative for me, and that’s what I’m trying to get to people understand—movement doesn’t have to be complicated to change your life.
Was That How You Developed Your RAIL Reset System?
Absolutely. I started to look at the brain, from the way that we behave to why we do certain things when we’re in pain or sick. Then I wanted to figure out what my body was trying to communicate to me. One of the things that I always say is that pain is a request for change. It can be a physical pain, it can be an emotional pain, but it’s your body telling you that you need to change something. From there I put the Stop Chasing Pain system together.
If We Can Rewind For Just A Second, I Know The Professionals In The Strength Matters Community Love What You Do, But Could You Sum Up Your RAIL Reset System For The Everyday Athletes In Our Audience?
It’s a way of working with your brain and your nervous system. It’s an easy-to-use system, and when you apply it in order, you get astounding results. It stands for Release, Activate, Integrate, Locomotion. Release means massaging or doing soft tissue work on areas of the body where somebody has discomfort, tightness, stiffness or restriction. Activation/ integration is where you help the whole body begin to work with itself again. Let’s say, for example, that your ankle always hurts, and everybody only treats your ankle. Well, your brain is trying to tell you to change something and maybe not look at the ankle anymore. And the last phase of the RAIL is locomotion, and that is where you are finally up on two feet walking.
When You’re Treating Someone, Is It Purely Physical Or Is There An Emotional Aspect To It As Well?
It’s never just physical. There is always a mind-body connection because how you think changes your biology. You can feel it for yourself if you close your eyes and think back to a stressful event in your life. You’ll feel your present physiology start to change. Your heart will speed up, and you’ll start to sweat. That’s in your mind, but it gets locked into the tissues of your body. When I am working with someone I always pick out three things that are good. It can also be how I speak to them. I don’t say, “You’re weak on the left.” I say, “You’re stronger on the right.” It’s a subtle thing that can make a big difference. Something else that I have people do when they come in to see me are breathing exercises. I tell them that they have to breathe for at least for two minutes while I’m putting together their notes or program, and they have to think of something about themselves for which they’re grateful. Their mindset changes immediately.
What Do You Mean By The Pain Getting Into Your Tissues?
If you look at the current research on the brain, you’ll find that you can get locked into pain that’s in the brain, but that is not necessarily in the physical tissues of your body. For instance, if somebody has a serious trauma and needs surgery. When that specialist job is done, they then need to move on to another person that continues the healing. You’ve got your rehabilitation person and maybe your physical therapist after that. But what about someone who’s going to talk to that person and help them process the emotional trauma that is locked in there? Because that too affects how you move. Pain always affects how you move. Let’s say, for instance, you were bending over to tie your shoe and your back went out, whenever you do that movement again there’s going to be this moment of hesitation and vulnerability. It can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why Do You Think People Ignore Pain?
A lot of times it is that whole “no pain no gain” thing. We’ve also been programmed to think that “it’s not that bad yet”. We need to realize that pain is not a damage meter for your body, it’s an action signal. And that means that your brain is trying to tell you that you need to take some form of action. And unfortunately, that action for most people is taking a pill or rubbing something on where it hurts. And that’s cool because who the hell wants to be in pain, right? But when you take pain away, you begin to move more—and then when the pill wears off, you get worse. That’s where the RAIL Reset System comes into play. It teaches you how to move in an environment that’s safe for your body.
How Could Someone Use RAIL Not Necessarily To Get Out Of Pain But To Get Stronger?
There’s a quote that I use all the time from a good friend of mine, Paul McIlroy. He said something several years ago at the very first Strength Matters summit in London that truly resonated with me. It was that strength isn’t built, it’s granted to you by your nervous system. If you want to become stronger, it’s up to your brain and your nervous system to allow you to do that. If you have pain, the nervous system is already telling you that you have issues that you need to address. The RAIL Reset System is designed to help your nervous system feel safe.
True strength is being able to move your body mass in all different situations. It’s not how much you can bench press or deadlift. If you can’t go down to the ground and get up again for two minutes without dying of exhaustion, then that’s your nervous system telling you that you have some kind of vulnerability. And when you try to get stronger it won’t allow you to because it knows that if it gives you the strength that you want you’re going to do something stupid and hurt yourself. But unfortunately, we think, “If I’m not making progress I’m going to force it to happen.” Forcing it usually doesn’t work. Asking nicely usually works.
I Know That One Of The Things That People Respect And Love About You The Most Is That You Bring A Lot Of Positivity And Humility To The Strength Community. Not Only That But You Have The Ability To Speak And Write About Very Complicated Things In A Very Understandable Way. For Lack Of A Better Comparison, It Reminds Me A Bit Of Dr. Seuss. It’s Incredibly Meaningful, But Also Very Simple.
Well, first of all, Dr. Seuss is my favorite doctor, absolutely brilliant. I have this thing when I teach and that is that people think that I don’t take it seriously. How can I be talking about pain or discomfort and speak the way I do? To me, that’s the best compliment you could ever give me. Whoever said that you always have to be serious when you’re talking about a serious subject matter? I think that in the world of pain not being serious is probably one of the best things you can do to help somebody get better. Being serious has zero correlation with being good at what you do. The way that I deliver information is to try to get it to resonate with people. You can get information anywhere; it’s how the information is delivered that can make a real difference.
How Does That Tie Into What You Refer To As The Curse Of Knowledge?
The curse of knowledge is this: the smarter you get, the more that you learn, and the more you lose the beginner’s mindset. You begin to assume that people know the information that you know and you take it for granted. And that leads to devaluing the fundamentals. One of my favorite quotes is, “An expert is somebody who knows more and more about less and less.” For instance, if I share on social media how you can roll a ball on the bottom of your bare foot to alleviate back pain, in the world of fitness people are like, “Of course, you can. Everybody knows that.”
Well, no, everybody doesn’t know that because when I post something like that on social media, I have loads of people say, “That honestly just changed my life.” It puts it into perspective that it’s always new to somebody who doesn’t know it yet. That’s a really critical thing to understand. To the beginner, there are a lot of different options for someone to take. For a master, there are very few. So what we have to do is go back and start from that beginner mindset of those fundamentals over and over.
Speaking Of Instagram, You Are Quite Prolific On Social Media—What Advice Would You Give To Someone Who Wants To Build A Presence?
I always say that I don’t want you to leave here and be like me. I want you to leave here and be like you. Take the information, change it up and be curious. I’ve had people call me up and say, “I want to write a blog or make a video, but why would anybody want to listen to what I have to say?” Or it’s going to be something that they’ve already seen before elsewhere. But I always say that what makes the information different is how you deliver it. You’re bringing a part of yourself, your life, your experience to that information. It’s you that’s going to make a difference for someone else.
What Inspires You To Continue Learning?
I wish I knew, man. I’m addicted to it for sure. I think the reason I love learning is that I love to figure out something new. I also think it comes from breaking out of my shell, getting away from being shy and introverted and embracing failure. I wanted to learn to do things by making a ton of mistakes. I started to purposely screw up because the more mistakes I made the faster I learned.
Tell Me More About Your Soon-To-Be-Released Book, Stop Chasing Pain.
I write and I teach authentically. I’m very tongue-in-cheek; sometimes I’m in your face, sometimes I’m going to curse, but I’m very real. I have a playful kind of feel to the way that I teach and the way that I write. And I bring that to this book. It’s a very different book than most people are used to because of that approach. It has a lot of pictures, and it’s very simple for people to use. I wanted a book that might make a dent. “We’ll put a dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs would say. And I think that this book might just do that.
How Should The Average Joe Who Wants To Help Themselves Approach This Book?
Simple, you should just read it from beginning to end. In the beginning, I go over my story, but then I get into how we’ve ended up where we are, what movement is, how we can help ourselves get back to where we need to be, and then I explain in a very easy way the fundamentals of movement and how the system works. And honestly, if all you did was open it up and start to do the movements it’ll change your life, plain and simple. I wanted to have people be able to understand the difference between treating pain and looking for why stuff happens in the first place.
What’s The Biggest Takeaway?
Get down on the ground and do your work down there. Get kids to study on the floor. I’ve written my whole book while I’ve been on the ground. And I’m actually on the ground right now talking to you.
Why Is Living Life On The Floor So Important?
It’s important because you don’t stay in the same position for very long when you’re on the ground. You’re constantly being forced to move. You can sit in a chair endlessly for hours and not need to move at all. Just spending some time there is probably one of the best ways that you can begin to change how you feel and how you move. Plus, you need the strength to go down and get back up. It also sparks your brain when you have more of your body in contact with the ground; it stimulates your brain, and you think better.
What Are The Top Four Books You Would Recommend Complimenting What You Teach?
Mine, that’s number one. Another is one of the books that started me on my journey and is from my movement mentor. It’s Gray Cook’s Athletic, Body, and Balance. I love that book. There is a great one from a friend of mine Joanne Elphinston, called Stability, Sport and Performance Movement. And I guess the last would have to be Anatomy Trains on a Track from Thomas Myers, a great pioneer in a world of fascia.