Thursday, August 4, 2011

Does your MS create constraint or motivation?

Many years back, I thought to myself: If I ever have trouble walking, I'll do everything I possibly can to get better. I remember that I was watching some people who were having difficulty walking, and that I was being very judgmental of them.

Flash forward to today, when I now find myself with mobility issues, I think back to that moment. And I wonder if I'm now doing everything that I can to make sure that I can still walk. The answer is a resounding "No".  In some ways, this is very useful because it allows me to continue to play out my old dynamic. I get to judge and berate myself, and then tell myself the lie that health has nothing to do with effort - it's just something we are born with (or in my case, without).

I was going through this internal dialogue yesterday and realized that it's another variant of how I praise myself. I've written here about the work of Carol Dweck before, and I think it applies here. There are two types of praise, one for process and one for a trait. Process based praise is praising for effort and the work that it took to do something. Trait based praise is praising for a trait the person possesses such as "you must be really smart" or "you're very talented". Trait based praise is static - it's a fixed thing within us that we have no control over, so trait based praise tends to de-motivate people. Process based praise is dynamic and reflects a  person's actions and efforts. It is very motivating because a person knows that to receive more praise, they just need to do the thing they are being praised for: effort. I've never figured out how to be more "smart" but I think I can work harder.

Likewise, is MS a trait or a process? Is it a fact of our being or directly influenced by our actions?

One thing that always amazes me about the Human body is how quickly it responds to usage and need. All of our muscles and bones change and grow in response to how we use them. Martial artists hit hard surfaces repeatedly so their bones get stronger. Astronauts lose bone density almost immediately when in space because their is no longer any gravity for their bones to harden against.

New research is showing that the brain and nervous system respond similarly. The brain is really just a muscle that needs exercise, and then responds to need. MS damages the brain and nerves, and the body rebuilds them. A lot of my thinking on MS thus far has been on what type of beliefs and thoughts help the brain to damage itself. The next step is figuring out what kind of thoughts and activities help to build the brain.

My initial approach is that any new way I use my body or mind is probably going to help the brain. I recently started lifting weights and one thing that my mentor emphasized was not to get into a routine. He recommended that I vary weight, reps, speed, and exercises every two weeks. The body needs constant change to continue to grow. I have to continually look for new ways of moving my body so my brain is forced to grow and change in response to the movement. But it take a long time to build nerves and brain tissue. Muscles change the quickest. Then tendons, then bones, and then finally nerves. This is one place where praise for the effort is everything because the results take a long time to come.

When I started to work out four months ago, I would almost always hit a point where the muscles involved in the exercise would just stop working. They weren't tired, but it was like the off switch had been hit and they stopped responding. It was a distinct sensation from when the muscle got fatigued and was unable to lift more, and it was definitely neurological in origin. When I worked out yesterday, that sensation only happened 40% of the time, and mostly, I could feel the muscle get tired. My brain must have grown some new pathways!

If MS is viewed as a trait, as a fixed disease within us, then it constrains us. It limits our actions and there is nothing we can do about it. If MS is a dynamic process, then it can motivate us and help us to work harder and put more effort into being healthy. MS needs to be our motivation, not our limitation.

photo courtesy of Brain_Blogger


  1. Your theory was proven many years ago when physical therapists did not allow stroke victims to use the unaffected side for periods of time and applied therapy and exercise (ie. stationary bikes, etc.) After some time of intentionally constraining the unaffected limbs, ability was greatly restored - new brain pathways created. Except for times when I feel sick (from anything including ms) I always exercise as vigorously as possible, in any way possible several times a week. I've had ms since 1986 and I'm still on my feet.

  2. Thank you for that great info. Do you think a similar thing would work for MS? Some activities that would force us to use the effected muscles?

    Do you find that when you do new and different exercises, you see an difference in your MS?

    what surprises me is that MS has never been presented to me this way by any medical professional. The idea that the brain is a muscle, MS injures it and our work is to rehab it seems a simple enough idea.