“Micro-trauma.” My ears perked up when I heard the name for what exercise scientists call the process of breaking down our muscles when we push them past their capacity. It sent my mind in a hundred different directions, but continued to synthesize what was already becoming very clear in my work as an integrative body-psychotherapist. The more I listen to and learned about my body the more I could understand the processes and movements of the human mind. What our minds hold metaphorically our bodies hold in actuality and to get close to one is to begin to understand the other. Everything is interconnected.
The class I was sitting in was a part of my education as a personal trainer. We were talking about the principles of weight training and muscle growth. I was learning that in order for something in the body to grow a person must follow a particular path or set of rules. This wasn’t surprising information for me after spending most of my life in competitive athletics where weight training was essential to performance. It was, however, surprising that it included words that I had strictly associated with the world of psychology. I began to see that there was a lot of wisdom waiting to be transmitted from the body to the mind if I was willing to tune in to it. I thought I’d share one such example below…
_______Two Types of Growth ______________________________________________________________________________
There are two types of growth that we observe in the body. One of is a growth of “coordination and integration” and the other is a growth of “breaking down and rebuilding”. The more our bodies work in coordinated effort the more we are able to utilize our power. This type of growth is more about the mind than the body. What I mean by this is a person doesn’t even have to physically move the body to begin growing strength through coordination. In fact, a handful of studies have actually shown that a person can begin to improve strength solely through mental rehearsal. In other words, we can become stronger by just imagining a movement in the body and playing that movement out repetitively in our mind. These studies have shown up to a 22% increase in strength from simple mental rehearsal! This is incredibly surprising to most people who associate non-movement as useless and “lazy”. The general science behind this growth is that our ability to utilize our body is contingent on our current structure AND the way in which our structure communicates with itself. Imagine the difference between a person who was employing his entire arsenal of muscle in a concerted and coordinated movement and a person who only employed portions of his makeup while large portions were unaware of the plan or told not to participate. If you were to pit those two armies against each other, the coordinated army would win every time because the mission was clear. Everything would be moving towards accomplishing the goal. We move when our brain communicates this message to our muscles. Our muscles are grouped in little battalions that receive the signals and move accordingly. What often happens is we isolate portions of our muscle and leave others out. The more we do a movement, or even imagine it, the more the other connected battalions of muscles begin to coordinate to find the most efficient and effective way to move. In the world of strength building this type of growth is referred to as a “neural gain.”
Moshe Feldenkrais began to learn about this in the experiments that he conducted on his body that eventually turned into the Feldenkrais method of structural integration. Part of the brilliance of Feldenkrais is its ability to focus attention on the muscles while slowly and gently exploring different ways of doing the same movement. Feldenkrais was always wondering how he could make a movement easier in the world; searching out the ways he could employ unused parts of himself to create ease of motion. These mini-experiments begin to awaken different parts of us that have been dormant and alert our mind to new possibilities in our skin. These adjustments literally reprogram the brain through the exploration. As time goes on the dedicated practitioner begins to move towards greater balance and synchronicity in their bodies which produce stunning results in strength and power. This curious exploration creates integration, which as we will see in both body and mind, creates a powerful force.
The first way of change is very gentle and non-forceful. It begins with an acceptance of what is and moves towards integrating all that is into a whole force. It takes what we have and finds the best way to utilize it in the world through the use of attention, listening, understanding, and creativity. The other way of change involves “breaking down and rebuilding” our structure. The general idea of this way of change is a movement from what is to what could be. If the first growth is one of acceptance and integration, the second way is one of desire and longing. It sees what is and deems it “not enough” to satisfy what it wants to be and become in the world. Words that come to mind around this process is tearing and rebuilding, death and resurrection. Strength in this context is acquired through a process called “micro-trauma”. In order for us to change what is into what could be we must push past what our bodies can handle. This, in the world of strength training, is called the principle of overload. When we push our bodies to the end of their capacity to support the demand, we traumatize it. When the body is traumatized it breaks, or tears open. Our body then sends little repair teams (nutrients that bandage our tears) and they build up what was torn a little better each time. This is how a muscle grows larger. It tears and is rebuilt a little bigger, then the slightly larger version, when it is overwhelmed, tears and grows a little bigger. Each successive time we amass new muscle and create new capacity to hold more weight. This type of muscle growth is called a “hypertrophic gain.”
What is important to understand here is that a degree of trauma is actually inherent in the process of this type of growth. We cannot grow more of something unless we allow something to be broken apart. The key to this process is in the pacing, thus the word “micro-trauma”. If we shock the body with “macro-trauma” we are going to severely injure it. When weightlifters don’t slowly build up towards a limit they can tear muscles, shatter bones, or destroy ligaments. This type of “trauma” debilitates the body, as it does the mind. To rehabilitate from such trauma is long and exhaustive work.
The art of building muscle comes through paying attention to how much one is pushing and overwhelming the body. We naturally heal when there is appropriate attention given to warming up, cooling down, resting, and caring for the body after it is small t traumatized. If a person does not prep and care for the body after it has been overwhelmed, injuries will begin to pop up chronically.
Let’s take these concepts and apply them to the practice of psychology and therapy. The strongest individual is one that can employ both principles of strength. A coordinated, integrated self is more flexible and balanced and can withstand the process of breaking and rebuilding. In other words, an integrated, “secure” self is more resilient when confronted with demands from outside it. This is unsurprisingly the exact conclusion of attachment and human growth researchers over the past decade. When a self, or muscle group, is fragmented and disintegrated pushing it past its’ limitations will only serve to widen and intensify the issues already present in the body. You can see this visually at the gym. Notice individuals who have focused their concentration on a specific part while leaving the rest of them neglected. You see arms that appear to belong to a different body because the individual has focused all his energy on increasing something at the expense of other parts.
If we don’t create a solid foundation of acceptance and “neural” integration, attempting to push a person towards any “hypertrophic gains” will only further split their mind and body. In order for them to be their most powerful self they must first come to love what is already present. Each person must begin to see and value the ways in which their body and mind has adapted to the stresses of its past environment. These adaptations have limitations, but even in the harshest of examples, every behavior, emotion, and mental process has an adaptive function. Even the ones that we come to therapy to get rid of.
The initial movement of therapy then is always around acceptance and integration. We must learn to listen to our behaviors, emotions, sensations, and beliefs with a renewed curiosity. Instead of trying to destroy the presence of a symptom (the voice of our body), our work is to befriend it and learn what it is trying to communicate to us. If we aren’t trying to get rid of something we can start learning how to play with it. Like the Feldenkrais Method, our task is to pay closer attention and learn the most efficient methods of being us. There are all kinds of acceptance therapies that focus on this coordination.
The process of moving into desire, however, opens us up to a different kind of therapeutic reality. We cannot desire more for ourselves without experiencing the pains of childbirth. We always ache as we become. We push the boundaries of what is so that we can open up new possibilities in mind, body, and relationship. To do this a person must decide to step out of the safety and security of what they know and walk towards what they don’t. To breakdown, rebuild, and expand. In theological language, we enter the process of death for the hope of what could be more glorious (resurrection). To be transformed. Not because we hate ourselves and our foundation, but because, in the words of my priest, we want “to become more of who we already were.”