[Premium Content] An Interview With Dr. Perry Nickelston Of Stop Chasing Pain
This month, Dr. Perry Nickelston speaks to Casey Gillespie 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 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.