Alice Grayson

on chronic pain, nerve pathways, and movement, from a therapist’s perspective.

How do our life experiences manifest in our bodies?
What does this mean for chronic conditions and pain?
How can we live healthier and happier lives through movement?
Find out in this episode!

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Show Notes

Alice is based in Lancaster, England, and works at Re:set – find out more here:

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Guest Info

Alice Grayson

Alice Grayson is a Sports Massage Therapist and Movement Practitioner working in the North West. She specialises in treating both acute injury, chronic pain conditions, analysis of postural and habitual movement patterns, as well as movement rehabilitation and re-patterning through body awareness techniques. Her personal experience of injury, alongside her background in dance and movement training has become an integral part of her work which combines hands on techniques with movement, breathing and relaxation techniques to promote bodily understanding and an autonomous approach to health and wellbeing.

She is currently working with clients exploring the relationship between neural pathways and the musculoskeletal system,  particularly how the body responds to pain signals or interrupted neural pathways and how this can affect movement patterns, overall health and wellbeing and ultimately our sense of self.

She is increasingly curious about the concept of how our bodies store the ‘memory’ of pain, either through immediate injury, acute or historical trauma, including physical, psychological and emotional trauma and how this can manifest itself within the body in ways that are complex, manifold and inescapable.

Transcript

Sam McCormick:

Hello, everyone, welcome to Curious e-Motion, a podcast by Curious Motion. I’m Sam McCormick and today we are joined by a good friend of mine, Alice Grayson. Alice is a sports massage therapist and movement practitioner based in the north west of England. We met 10 years ago at London Contemporary Dance School when studying for our master’s degrees. And since then, we’ve worked together on a number of projects around health, wellbeing and self care.

Sam McCormick:

Alice specialises in treating both acute injury and chronic pain alongside movement rehabilitation through body awareness techniques. She’s increasingly curious about how our bodies store the memory of pain. And today, she shares with us an array of insights into this. This episode is jam packed with fascinating info about our bodies. Here we go…

Sam McCormick:

Hi, Alice. Thanks for being here.

Alice Grayson:

Hello, Sam.

Sam McCormick:

It’s lovely to have you.

Alice Grayson:

Very lovely to be here.

Sam McCormick:

This is a different way of working for us, isn’t it?

Alice Grayson:

Very much so.

Sam McCormick:

Two different places in the country via computers, rather than in a studio moving around together. So, Alice, we’re going to have a little chat today about your work in sports massage therapy and your movement practitioner experience. And particularly, you are, in my opinion, a font of all knowledge, when it comes to the body and the nervous system and how our experiences in our lives manifest through our bodies, and how we can address some of those in really useful and natural ways. So I’m really excited to chat to you about all of that. So to get started, how did you get into working in sports massage therapy and your movement practice work?

Alice Grayson:

I suppose it came from my background in dance training, which is obviously how you and I met. I trained as a dancer up until the age of about 22. And that was the only thing I wanted to do with my life. Unfortunately, I got a bad back injury while I was in my second year of my training, and didn’t really know how to go about dealing with it from an autonomous point of view. So I was relying on external treatments through physiotherapists and osteopaths. I couldn’t really find an answer.

Alice Grayson:

And I think by that point, I’d also got quite disillusioned with the aesthetics of dance, and more interested in the mechanics of how the body works, how the psychology of movement works. And when I finished my training, I thought maybe I needed to change direction. So I retrained in sports massage at that point, was really lucky to have some brilliant shooters, and to get a job quite quickly working in a clinic in Lancashire.

Alice Grayson:

And so started out doing that, absolutely fell in love with the discipline. And through working with other people’s bodies actually learned quite a lot about my own body, and was able to go back to my own existing back problems and injuries and reflect on it and sort of self treat, I suppose. And then through that, I managed to go back to dancing within the space of a couple of years.

Alice Grayson:

So I got very interested about that idea of autonomy, and how the body learns movement patterns that can be helpful, or unhelpful. And I suppose that’s been my passion, all the way through. At the same time, I also got very interested in the psychology of movement, sports, athleticism, but also the psychology of injury and how that can either really enhance one’s sense of identity, if things are going well, or really deteriorate that sense of identity, when they’re not going so well.

Alice Grayson:

So that was kind of how I started in sports massage, then going back to a more dance background and teaching on a couple of dance programs here in the north west, I decided that I wanted to go back to do my master’s looking at elite dance training, and health and injury prevention, using some of those skills that I’d already learned. So I suppose that was where my initial interest came from. And since then, I’ve realized… It’s really solidified in my brain that my interest in movement isn’t so much about how pretty it can look, how high your leg can go in the air. It’s about how does it benefit the body? How does it help us find our grounding? How does it find identity for us? Where those things can go wrong, get a bit distorted, and what can we do to help facilitate a more positive relationship? Those areas of our lives. So that was kind of my initial interest in it.

Sam McCormick:

It’s a really interesting point, I think in terms of dance training, things are evolving, aren’t they, but there is still this focus in some respects on aesthetics and quite extreme ways of using your body. Which, it’s an art form, that’s going to happen sometimes. But we definitely need this focus on what that means for the person and like you were saying about identity.

Alice Grayson:

And I must qualify very quickly, when I did my training, that was a good 18 years ago, so things definitely have moved on from then. But I suppose what I was trying to say was, rather than it just being for that very kind of small, unique bunch of people that have that innate ability, I think my interest in it, I felt more useful doing that work from a more mechanical point of view, than a performing point of view, I suppose.

Sam McCormick:

What are the key observations that you’ve made through your work in sports massage therapy, particularly?

Alice Grayson:

There are many and manifold observations. But some of the really key ones, I’ve been increasingly interested in how acute pain or chronic pain can start to impact the body and our relationship with it. So talking about identity, how that experience of pain can really start to embed itself in our nervous system. And I suppose that led me on to thinking about the topic we’re going to talk about today. Whether it’s a chronic pain condition that you live with every day, or it’s a very new acute condition, it can completely take the rug out from underneath you, and make you feel like you can’t interact in the world in the same way.

Alice Grayson:

And I see this on a daily basis. And the other thing I see is a lot of uncertainty around the right, in inverted commas, or the wrong thing to do. How long will it last? What drugs should I be taking? Shouldn’t I be taking drugs? Should I be exercising? Should I be resting? And trying to work with each client around those individual conversations, because there’s no one size fits all with any of this. And talking to people about their own relationship to their own experience of either pain or discomfort or restricted movement, or even simple things like, “Well, I can’t brush my teeth in the morning, because that hurts.” Or, “Well, I’m not really that bad. But I still can’t lace my shoelaces.” And how we kind of negotiate those very simple tasks in our relationship with all sorts of normal functioning lives. So I suppose that’s one observation I’ve made.

Sam McCormick:

You’re working with people who are in a really broad range now, aren’t you. So all ages, all sorts of life experiences and things.

Alice Grayson:

So I work with elite athletes from professional mixed martial artists, professional football players, through the spectrum, people that work in offices a lot, lots of people who work on their feet, maybe in the hospitality industry, or lots of people at the moment who work for the NHS. Through to people who actually retired and they don’t have a lot of physical demands on their lives, but they want to keep moving. And they want to keep functioning. So it’s a very broad spectrum.

Alice Grayson:

And they all have very different needs. And I suppose one of the things that also would count as an observation is, initially, I was doing a lot of hands on physical manual therapy through sports massage. But I was finding increasingly that it sort of was negated because people would go away after treatment, and then just carry on doing the normal movement patterns they would do and then come back. And almost the body would have reset itself to those basic movement patterns.

Alice Grayson:

So what I’ve become increasingly aware of is the role of positive movement patterns through the body, how can we reprogram those? How can we make that relationship slightly more positive? How can we take the psychological pressure off, “I’m in pain, and I’m trying to protect.” And allow people to find something that feels a little bit more supported, and also a bit safer, that allows them to explore some of those boundaries a little bit more?

Sam McCormick:

So it’s really connecting to their whole life experience.

Alice Grayson:

Very much so.

Sam McCormick:

And not a standalone, “Here’s an hour of treatment. Off you go. See you later.”

Alice Grayson:

Yeah.

Sam McCormick:

And what sort of questions do you get from your clients? Are there any sort of key things people generally ask? Maybe random ones?

Alice Grayson:

I get lots and lots of questions. But the most common one is, “Why is it like this? How long will it take to get better? How can I fix it? Why did it happen? And how long will it take?” Because people really want that end result, pretty soon. And unfortunately, I have to tell them, it’s very much a process. It depends on A, where you started, when we began the treatment plan, or the treatment process, B, what you decide to do with your time in between treatment, and C, your approach to where you want to be.

Alice Grayson:

Because I am very much a firm believer, and that it’s not a case of A to B, it’s a case of A to C to D, to maybe back through B, and then maybe to Z, and then you come back to Q and it’s just such a meandering journey. And there is no straight linear line for anyone. I always think we inhabit our bodies… We have a body, and we think it’s one entity. But we inhabit it in a different way on a daily basis, depending on what you did the day before, what the demands of the day ahead are, our inherent muscular traits, what we’ve done for the last 20 years, and it’s all just such a moveable feast for different people. So I find those questions, quite hard to answer. And which isn’t always very satisfying for people because they do want that end result.

Alice Grayson:

But what’s really nice about working with clients continuously and having regular clients is they don’t expect a quick fix. And I am very fortunate in that I get to work with them over a process rather than it being a “I’ve come here, and then I’m leaving and I’m not going to be better.” So those that’s one of the things that I would say about that.

Alice Grayson:

The other one is in terms of the why do things get the way they do, because it sort of leads me on to some things you might talk about later. But looking at kind of how muscles store tension. So most people come because they have a muscle spasm, or a muscle pain, or a joint pain. And quite often there’s a soft tissue issue. Soft tissue issue, that rhymes! It’s a good kind of causing restriction. And so why do soft tissues get tight? At a very basic level, it’s because the muscle fibers and the soft tissue fibers all get kind of squeezed and bunched up together when they’re either held tense, they’ve undergone trauma, so they’ve been injured, or they’ve just been doing repetitive movement patterns. So it all gets a bit squeezed and forms that kind of grisly… I think we all know what that feels like to roll your shoulders around to go, “Oh, I can feel that.”

Sam McCormick:

Yes, definitely.

Alice Grayson:

And so why does that happen. At a mechanical level, it’s to do with that squeezing of muscle fibers, which sometimes can then put strain on the joints. Sometimes that can affect the posture, and that causes skeletal imbalances. So that’s the kind of physiological level. But the other thing that I think has a really knock on impact is the response to pain. So when we’ve had an injury, or we’ve been held in a particular movement pattern for a long time, our brain gets really set in that hard-wiring. And pain is supposed to be a protective response most of the time, that’s what it’s designed for, to tell your brain, there’s something going wrong in the body. And then it sends signals to the muscles to say, “Oh, don’t do that, because it’s going to hurt.”

Alice Grayson:

And then that starts to cause restricted movement. And then that can cause… It’s like a vicious cycle, it becomes the same part of the feedback loop. So the muscles then think they’re in more pain. So they stop moving. And then that causes the brain to receive more pain signals to send more signals to say, “Don’t move.” And then that’s… So there’s a very two way conversation between the brain and the body going on with lots of these, particularly chronic pain, and issues where the brain thinks don’t. Actually what the body needs to do is move but because the brain is telling it not to. That’s where you get that squeezing of the muscle fibers. So the two things are very interrelated. And that’s what I’m really fascinated by.

Sam McCormick:

Yeah, it’s a very fascinating subject and something that we’re going to focus on today is that. How we have communication between our nervous system and our muscles and our movement. And can you explain to us how the nervous system communicates that way?

Alice Grayson:

I’ve been trying to think of lots of helpful analogies. Well, there’s kind of two ways that the nervous system works. So I would say one of the pathways is more neural. So it’s to do with what I was just talking about to do with the brain sending signals to try and protect the muscles. And sometimes that can be distorted through certain conditions. So it’s brain injury like stroke, concussion, head injury, Parkinson’s, neurological conditions that do directly affect the brain.

Alice Grayson:

And then sometimes it can get distorted through, as I was saying unhelpful movement patterns, which can be related to our environment. Simple things like the fact that we always did maybe cross legged with one leg over the top so that your body learns that movement pattern, and that can kind of create the distortion in the muscle habits. And then that sends signals back to the brain saying, “Oh, this feels very strange.” So it reverts back to its normal pattern.

Alice Grayson:

Trying to think. Maybe Zoom is a good example. Because we’re all Zooming at the moment. And it’s like, your brain is the central Zoom bit, maybe that’s the person coordinating the meeting, sending all these messages out to the muscles or the bones or the organs. Because all of our organs in the body, all of our connective tissue have muscle responses to… The muscles have more motor responses, so they’re more about the doing neural responses. So it’s almost like the brain is sending out all of these signals, say, “Do this, do this, do this.”

Alice Grayson:

If there’s a blockage somewhere, or there’s an inferior connection, or someone hasn’t unmuted themselves, then you won’t get the feedback response back to the brain that keeps that feedback loop going. So that’s one of the things that I could kind of describe it as. The other analogy that I sometimes use, particularly where you’ve got areas of muscles that are very tight, or haven’t been used for a while. Because the nerves are actually physical things, they take up space within the body. So the muscles surround the nerves. And if the muscles get very, very tight and very squeezed, it’s almost like someone standing on a hose pipe and interrupting the flow of water through the hose pipe.

Alice Grayson:

So certainly conditions like sciatica, or kind of that tingling feeling down the arm when you have a shoulder spasm, that can interrupt some of those signals. And then you don’t get that positive feedback loop. So again, the body isn’t really… It’s giving the brain signals to say I can move and so the brain stops sending signals to say to move. So I don’t know if either of those analogies are very helpful there.

Sam McCormick:

They’re great. They really helpful. I particularly love the Zoom one. I’ve not been on one’s name call yet where everyone remembers to unmute yet. I mean, honestly, I think that literally sums 2020 up, doesn’t it?

Alice Grayson:

Yes. So the brain is full of all of these interpreting nerve receptors. So it receives information from the body, that’s its main purpose. However, it doesn’t actually have any real sensory nerve receptors of its own. So if I was to, which I’m not going to do, but if I was to take your skull off, and just poke around in your brain for a bit, and there’s no way your brain would actually experience any of that pressure, because it doesn’t have those signals.

Alice Grayson:

However, the body doesn’t have any real interpretive nerve receptors, so all it can do is send signals up to the brain, for the brain to interpret. So it’s this real kind of conversation. And I think you and I’ve talked about this before, Sam, there’s always this thing of mind over matter and it’s all in your head. And it kind of is all in your head, because that’s the only way we can interpret pain. However, we can’t separate the two entities because one wouldn’t exist without the other.

Alice Grayson:

So it’s very much not mind over matter, but mind is matter. And the two things have to work in synergy. And sometimes when the brain gets overloaded with those pain signals, or what it interprets as pain signals, it can flood the body with those negative “Don’t move, shut everything down.” And then that stops the body moving, which has that impacted physiological effect. And then that could cause more problems. It’s a very complex thing. But very fascinating. And then there’s also the impact of stress hormones that heighten that pain response things like cortisol.

Sam McCormick:

Yeah, I was going to ask what are, in your opinion, some of the key things that cause some of these distortions. And obviously, there are illnesses and conditions that we all know about. Lots and lots of people live with chronic pain that is completely unexplained as well in a traditional sense. So yeah, are there any sort of key things that you found through your experience?

Alice Grayson:

Well, the predominance of rheumatological conditions, things that really don’t have a lot of research behind them, they don’t have a lot of explanation yet, but we know are very real – things like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, that can cause this inflammatory response. They’ve been very linked to diet, been very linked to high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the system, and stimulation of that fight or flight or freeze response, that stops the body processing hormones in a natural way. So the sympathetic nervous system, which is about that kind of busy doing, getting on with stuff that is always hyper stimulated. And the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the bit that lets us rest, digest, regulates breathing, heart rate, gets really dampened down.

Alice Grayson:

And I think in my experience, that’s quite a strong indicator of someone who’s likely to experience that heightened pain response. And other conditions like IBS, again, relating to the gut. And then things like physical and emotional trauma, our bodies have a way of really manifesting that within itself and not just within the brain in the emotional sense, but within the body tissues because of that relationship.

Alice Grayson:

So I think we all are familiar with this experience of feeling stressed, and our shoulders start to kind of attach themselves to our ear lobes, because our breathing suddenly comes up into the chest, and we forget to really ground ourselves. I would say those are pre-indicators. And then other things. So I do sometimes see people with very specific conditions, like say, acute trauma, orthopedic injuries, hip replacements, and so they’ve learned to protect that particular area. And so I work with them around trying to release that area and find a way that they feel comfortable moving back into it, so they’re not still holding and protecting it. And they feel safe to go through those range of movements. And I always emphasise working within a comfortable range of movement. So you don’t get that body. You always stay slightly one step back from that “Oh, this hurts.” So that you don’t kick off that pain response.

Sam McCormick:

I was just going to ask. I know, over the first lockdown in the UK work completely stopped for you. And then when you started seeing your regular clients, again, or new clients, were there any changes that were quite different to perhaps how it might have been?

Alice Grayson:

In terms of had I seen previous clients through that process, there were unfortunately several people who were really just beginning to turn a corner. So one example I can give is a guy who I was working, with Parkinson’s, and he was just managing to drop his pain medication down. And we were doing lots of movement re-patterning works and not just hands on manual therapy. But we were looking a lot at balance and trying to get his body to reintegrate itself. And unfortunately, he’s really taken a couple of steps back through not having that regular treatment.

Alice Grayson:

So it’s good to be back on track with that. There was another client who suffers from chronic migraines through really historic jaw tension. And he had, again, not had a migraine for about nearly a year before lock down. And then had his first migraine through the second lockdown. So it was a bit frustrating to see that people went back a couple of steps through not having that regular treatment. However, since being back open through the second bit, that we’re allowed to be open, it’s been really nice to see that people have… They’ve been able to find that treatment again and been able to make a more speedy recovery than initially. And also the fact that people have really picked up on it and there does seem to be a slightly more proactive approach in terms of people’s health and well being. So several new clients who wanted something that wasn’t reliant upon medication and kind of the more Western medicine approach, I suppose that would be my difference.

Sam McCormick:

Yeah, it’s positive to see that if things have managed to get back on track, and people are becoming more aware of their well being. So I was just thinking as you were talking there about emotional experiences and traumas and the world’s really experiencing collective trauma this year.

Alice Grayson:

Absolutely.

Sam McCormick:

Yeah. So I was intrigued to see whether that’s something that you’re seeing more of?

Alice Grayson:

And actually, now you qualify it like that, yes, I am. I’m seeing more people with anxiety and stress than I was previously to the first lockdown. And I think people are really seeking, especially people that live alone, and maybe didn’t see anyone, for months, just that physical touch is really crucial. Because it’s not only a question of finding the knots and the nitty gritty of it. Actually it’s only through touch that we really learn about our own boundaries. And for lots of us, it’s a way of defining where we start and end. And I think when we’re all feeling a bit discombobulated, it’s a way of just try to, again, find that grounding. So it’s a really interesting question. I hadn’t quite thought of that. But yeah, there definitely has been a difference.

Sam McCormick:

Yeah, it just made me think there especially as you were talking about emotional influences, and stress is just something that I think, is a problem for most people, and it was before the pandemic. I mean, we’ve seen it in our work, haven’t we, in terms of movement?

Alice Grayson:

Definitely. And there’s kind of… I call it the coat hanger syndrome, where people, it feels like they’re trying to hang themselves up from their shoulders down on a coat hanger. And we’ve sort of forgotten how to put our feet on the floor and root and let the body stack up. And so that’s something I’ve been aware of.

Sam McCormick:

So that would be sort of movement pattern that results from this distorted communication from our nervous system, that would be an example?

Alice Grayson:

Yeah. Coat hanger syndrome.

Sam McCormick:

What other things do you see, through movement patterns particularly, any common ones?

Alice Grayson:

Common ones, and I would say, mainly relate to the diaphragm. So around the ribs, the lower ribcage, and the upper back, and neck and shoulders. Because most of us now have to do significant amounts of time at the computer. And so the movement pattern gets held in a very fixed posture. And I also wonder if there’s something about working from home, that’s what lots of people have been doing, where it’s very easy to get stuck into something. Because you’re not in an office, being interrupted, or there’s not a brew break, or there’s not a lunch break. You can be on your computer for about six hours and not even notice.

Alice Grayson:

So I think there’s something around that holding pattern from just concentrating. Another one I see quite a lot is around, again, shoulder tension, but the inclination to try and lift the arms from the top of the shoulder. And I almost blame primary schools. Sorry, no, not going to say blame primary schools, you’ll have to edit that out. But I think that there is something about that kind of put your hand up, and everything kind of reaching. And we sort of forget that connection from from the back to the top of the arms. And when we’re already up here and stressed and kind of in the upper ribcage that gets exacerbated because it’s always trying to reach for the next thing, rather than letting the body sort of settle.

Sam McCormick:

That’s so interesting, in your opinion. And from your experience, I suppose these childhood movement patterns that we’ve learned-

Alice Grayson:

Very much so.

Sam McCormick:

… Can really-

Alice Grayson:

They carry through. And the other one I was going to say about the diaphragm is this whole thing that we taught from being kids to breathe in. And that means you suck your belly in. And so that I think, can contribute something through really reverse breathing patterns. I quite often as part of my manual therapy will ask someone to breathe in before doing a stretch. And I’d say the majority of the time, they’re within a first treatment, you’ll see the belly really suck in and flatten and the ribcage stick outwards, actually, the diaphragm is designed to move outwards and downwards so the belly should inflate. So again, it’s that kind of breath in. And particularly with, I wonder if this is controversial to say that maybe particularly with women, we’re always taught to cross our legs.

Sam McCormick:

Yeah, that’s very true.

Alice Grayson:

That kind of pelvic floor and sort of inner thigh tension I think is maybe more pronounced. Women, because of that idea that we’re not allowed to ever just let the hips open because that’s embarrassing somehow. So I think it’s not just… It’s not just mechanical as in what we individually do, there’s a lot of social, cultural and environmental factors that impact on those kind of movement patterns. And then other things, say someone’s had an injury, and they’ve been in a cast, for six months, or whatever. And then it’s how do we reprogram those.

Alice Grayson:

And I’ve got a couple of examples, actually, that I wrote down. And one of them that really stood out to me was a lady who’d had a stroke, and been told she’d never have the use of her right arm again. So had been braced up with a strap that kind of crossed her ribs that physically disabled her right up to support it in the joint. But then what also happened was because she couldn’t lift her right arm, she forgot that she could actually move her left arm. So she stopped moving her left as well. So she had a bit of frozen… Wasn’t classic frozen shoulder, but she had frozen shoulder symptoms in the left.

Alice Grayson:

Because the body kind of tries to symmetrize somehow. And so by working with her, getting her to move the left gently. And then we did some visualization exercises with either myself or her husband, where we would mirror moving the right arm, so facing us, and one of us would move that same arm, as in a mirror image. And gradually, she just started to get a little bit of muscle activation, even though technically, that arm wouldn’t work, because she was thinking about what it felt like to move the left arm, she could recreate that idea in her head to move the right arm and we got some movement. I wouldn’t say full range of movement. But having been told you’ll never move that arm again, we started just to get some activity in it.

Alice Grayson:

So I find it quite kind of curious how bits of the brain will talk to different bits of the body and how we can through that conscious visualization and thinking about movement. It’s almost like you rehearse those movement pathways in your head, before you go into the movement. And then that seems to just… It’s a bit like clearing the leaves on a train track, you just clear it all away, and then there’s a little bit more fluidity and then you get a slightly smoother pathway. I’ve got no idea if that made any sense?

Sam McCormick:

Oh, it really did. That makes me think about from a dance perspective when I was training, we were often asked to do a visual rehearsal where you would sit down close your eyes and think your way through the whole choreography.

Alice Grayson:

Yes.

Sam McCormick:

And it did the same thing. It started to build a memory through the body I found anyway, where I then over time found it easier in rehearsal to first of all, remember what’s coming next. But second of all, achieve all of the qualities and artistic stuff around that. And I think visualization is an absolutely fascinating topic. And I was going to ask how we can improve this conversation between the nervous system and our movement in our muscles. And I suppose visualization is one of them.

Alice Grayson:

It’s absolutely massive, I use it a lot, especially with people who’ve had kind of acute injuries affecting joints, that everything is really protected. And quite often if I take the joint through a passive range of movement, so I’m actually moving the joint, they’ve got full range of movement. If I ask them to do it actively for themselves, there’s a lot of pain because the muscles are kind of holding it. And again, they’re going back to that pain response, “This is going to hurt, so I’m not going to do it.”

Alice Grayson:

So rather than just always me doing it passively for them, I get them to rehearse it in their heads first, and then do it a second time. And there’s a brilliant exercise. I don’t know if I’ve got time to take everyone through it, but it’s something that listeners can do at home.

Sam McCormick:

Let’s go for it.

Alice Grayson:

So if you kind of sit with your head either resting against a wall or lying down and your head just resting back against a flat surface with your eyes closed, just turn your head to one side or the other. It really doesn’t matter which one, keeping your eyes closed. And then open your eyes and just see immediately what you can see ahead of you. So you have to be really honest, just looking straight in front of your nose. You might have like a pattern on the wall or picture or a cat looking you, whatever. And then coming back and bring your head back to the center and then you repeat the idea of process keeping your eyes closed, you do that same movement, but only imagining it. So you’re not actually moving your head, you’re just imagining you’re taking it over to the side.

Alice Grayson:

And then almost like you’re an owl, and you could rotate it 180 degrees and look all the way behind you. So it’s a bit of a freaky image, but you rotated your head to basically look down over the back of your spine, and then just imagining rehearsing that movement pathway back to the center. And then when you get back to the middle, you keep your eyes closed. And then you physically repeat that process and you take the head as far over that same side as you can, then open your eyes and just see if it’s moved that little bit further. And I have to say, it kind of feels a bit like witchcraft, some of the time. And all you’ve done is you’ve rehearsed that neural pathway, and you kind of gone over and beyond what’s physically possible. But your brain will hold that as a “Well, if that’s my limit, then that’s probably… That second version is probably a safe space to be.”

Sam McCormick:

So you’re creating new or I don’t know reestablishing connections.

Alice Grayson:

Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it, reestablishing. And then another one is just to… Because lots of people say, “Oh, well, I do it in my sleep, and I can’t help it.” And also, through daily life I have a saying about lifting your hand up, you can’t every time you lift your hand up to read something off the supermarket shelf, think, “Oh, I must drop my shoulder down. And I must reach from here.” But those conscious rehearsals of movement pathways. So I am using this quite a lot with a couple of people I work with doing mixed martial arts. So getting them to move through those pathways just using the technique. But without that sparring partner, or without the external pressure of something else that you have to respond to. Actually, how does my joints move mechanically, going through those pathways a few times.

Alice Grayson:

And then gradually through the conscious process of it, they start to embed themselves in their unconscious. And it’s the same thing with falling asleep. If you do those gentle, say it’s maybe a head movement exercise mindfully and consciously before bed, you’re less likely to have a kind of unconscious movement in your sleep, that will then set something off again. Yeah, I think it’s really about doing those conscious movement pathways, rehearsing them, even though you might not be able to use them in the actual real life context. At least your nervous system has had the chance to process them a little bit. And then you’re more likely to be able to draw on that as a resource when you have to do them.

Alice Grayson:

And then the other one is, if I’m working with people who do lots of things like they may lift weights in the gym, or something that requires lots of resistance, getting them to rehearse the technique with no resistance. So they really settle in the body and the stance, and then getting them to put the technique. So again, you’re not having to respond to something external, you’re thinking about really internalizing it so that when you add the external, you’re more likely to have those resources to draw on to make it more efficient for your body.

Sam McCormick:

What’s so beautiful about that as well is that we could do that for ourselves at home. Obviously, it’s in our best interest to work with people like yourself who’ve got this knowledge and skill and experience to support us with that. But say that’s not possible for whatever reason, we could still take that moment to think about, “Okay, this is going on in my body.” What a beautiful thing to be able to do for yourself that is also natural, and is not taking a risk in any way, shape, or form as well.

Alice Grayson:

And I think it’s a shame that from a younger age, we’re not made more aware of our functional movement patterns. Because as I was saying before, and you were asking me, there’s so many external things that get imposed on the kids. If you watch kids running around the playground, they don’t really have that until the age of about six or seven. They’re very instinctive in how they move their body. And I think that idea of functional movement patterns, if we learnt how to do that as part of our physical education, routine curriculum whatever you want to call it, and if we have a little bit more awareness of how our bodies functionally move, then we might be able to stave off some of these more chronic conditions that end up kind of cropping up in 30s, 40s and 50s.

Alice Grayson:

So I find that idea about how we can work with children or younger adults to just get them slightly aware of some of those techniques. And I know Sam, you do some amazing work with your creative dance sessions with young children, and really use those principles. And I think it would be such a gift if we could expand that to a wider network. And hopefully one time, we’ll get there, we’ll create the world.

Sam McCormick:

We’re just going to keep trying. And it’s a prevention isn’t it, prevent, prevent, prevent. Nothing is set in stone, we can’t “100% say yes, this is going to prevent this.” But we know and we see it every day. We’re seeing it, we’re in a pandemic, our NHS is at breaking point, it was at breaking point before the pandemic. From having these experiences and working with people in communities and with all these different ages and life experiences. We know that there are really key, usable, safe things people can do.

Alice Grayson:

Absolutely.

Sam McCormick:

And it’s about learning and access.

Alice Grayson:

Yet, it’s very much about access. It’s not about blame, or… I’ve recently been working with someone who had a hip replacement, unfortunately, in the COVID times and hasn’t had an opportunity to have any physiotherapy, which isn’t the NHS’s fault. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just the way it is. But if she’d had the information that she now has, she feels that she would have had a much better experience of it. Fortunately, we’re now on the right track. In the same way, I’ve said this million times before, in the same way from year dot, since we grow teeth, we’re told “You must look up after your teeth, you brush them every day.” Maybe if we have a similar approach to the body, and not just the physical body as in making it fit. One of the other things I wrote down in my notes was about the kind of culture of if it hurts, it’s probably doing you good.

Sam McCormick:

The no pain, no gain thing?

Alice Grayson:

Yeah, very much. And I think there is an element of that in that we shouldn’t be afraid of pain, because I was saying originally that pain is a protective mechanism. And actually, if you’re going to go to the gym, you haven’t been for six months, then you’re reorganizing body tissue, basically. You’re trying to build muscle fibers. And it will feel slightly uncomfortable. But knowing the difference between positive pain and negative pain, when that pain is becoming destructive. And knowing that also, just because you have run two marathons in two days, that suits you great. But if that’s not what your body needs, then that’s not really very beneficial. So how do we learn to listen to our body in a slightly more… Again, this conversation between the nervous system, the brain, the mind, the body.

Sam McCormick:

And being compassionate to yourself, isn’t it? Which is that something when we’re not taught very well, in my opinion, I think. I don’t know whether this is because, again, I’m going to generalize here, but women are particularly the caregivers in a very traditional sense I’m talking, we are, can be… A lot of men can be but I think particularly women can be very much about putting everybody else first. And I think it still ties in when we’re looking at our bodies, all of these experiences, what we’ve been taught in terms of how to behave, and some of that stuff is really positive. But some of it we need to learn as we evolve. And we know now that some of that might not be as helpful as maybe its intention was. And it manifests there then later in adult life.

Alice Grayson:

Yeah. And there’s something that when I was first doing my training many thousands of years ago, it feels like, but because I came to my sports massage training straight from doing full time dance training, where everything just hurt all of the time. And I had some brilliant tutors, and I had some great experiences. But my own attitude to my body from being a child was to just put it through as much as it could withstand. And if I felt okay, I probably wasn’t working hard enough.

Alice Grayson:

And then coming to my sports massage training. And I don’t know if anyone has had a sports massage. But it normally doesn’t feel that lovely. There’s normally some aches and pains. But again, you’re trying to reorganize body tissue. But this idea of working within the minimal range of discomfort was a very new thing to me. So again, going back to that, I’m not going to get to the point where it’s agony, thinking that’s going to do me good. I’m going to get to the point where I think I’ve reached my limit. I’m going to stop and then nine times out of 10 you’ll find to do the same thing the next day your limit is slightly further until you build it up really nice and gradually and I think that’s quite a nice philosophy for life and maybe for coming out of lockdown.

Alice Grayson:

We’ll just do it slow and steady. I’m not going to overload myself with too many I’m going to work within my range of minimal discomfort. But it’s only through doing that we reestablish those more positive pathways between the brain, the nervous system, and the muscles, that we can kind of get back into our body and whether that’s through a more emotional way or a more physical way. Yeah, range of minimal discomfort.

Sam McCormick:

That is a wonderful piece of advice, especially, as you said, coming out of lockdown or coming out of this pandemic, whatever that means, at a pace of minimal discomfort. That is really so valuable, Alice, thank you so much.

Alice Grayson:

If someone asked you, what are you doing? You can just say, “I’m working within my range of minimal discomfort.” And if that involves drinking coffee and eating a scone then that’s fine.

Sam McCormick:

Then do it. Definitely, definitely, we all deserve that. And we’d deserved that anyway, regardless of a pandemic or not. Everybody deserves that. Oh, wow. Okay. Well, Alice, this has just been fascinating. I could talk to you all day about this subject. And I’m really fascinated by your work and so grateful to have you here.

Alice Grayson:

Oh, thank you.

Sam McCormick:

Thanks so much.

Alice Grayson:

It’s been really lovely to indulge myself in talking about the thing that I’m so passionate about. So thank you for inviting me. It’s been lovely. And lovely to see your smiling face, even though everyone else can’t.

Sam McCormick:

And you. One day we will be back in the same room-

Alice Grayson:

Indeed.

Sam McCormick:

… As well, that would be lovely.

Sam McCormick:

Oh, wow, what an episode. Especially this year, when many of us have a heightened awareness of our own well being and of those we love. It’s never been more important to have access to information and support around the complexities of our bodies and minds. I’m so grateful to Alice for sharing this with us. If you’d like to find out more about her work, do check out the show notes. And why not have a go at using visualizations yourself. We’d love to hear how you find it or if any of the experiences we chatted about today resonate with you. Send us a message via our social media. You’ll find all the info in the show notes. Thank you so much for listening. And until next time, remember, tune into your body, be kind to yourself and stay curious. Bye.