Why it is so hard to CHANGE
There is nothing about our body which is fixed. All our constituent parts are constantly being broken down and remade. Red blood cells last only 120 days, whereas certain brain cells live for decades. Turn-over of our complete skeleton takes about 10 years but our skin is replaced in a matter of weeks. The obvious question, then, is why do we continue to look the same, have the same scars, and the same health problems? If we are constantly being renewed, why are we not refreshed anew? If our structure is not fixed, what is constraining us to stay the same?
Self-organisation (autopoiesis), found in even single-celled organisms, is an enigma to science yet life’s definitive characteristic is that it organises itself around a stable state. We, literally, hold ourselves together against the dissipating pull of entropy. Without this holding pattern we are non-existent. We are a dynamic stability: retaining enough molecular stability to stop us dissipating into a cloud of randomness with only enough plasticity for living processes to take place. We grow, age, repair, fight off pathogens, and reproduce, but change is strictly controlled around the central hub of sameness.
Living systems show a sophisticated balance between stability and change.
This balance is hugely relevant to health maintenance because the locus is based on natural selection (survival) rather than well-being.
Staying the same has many advantages.
We ‘hold on’ to the effects of past events for very good reasons. Scar tissue is stronger than the tissue it repaired, and so rebuilding scar tissue keeps the area stronger—as an adaptation. After all, that area must have been weak to be injured. The down side is that scar tissue can restrict movement and hinder flexibility.
Our immune system holds on to every affront it has ever experienced, reacting swiftly to anything which resembles what harmed us in the past. The down side is that an over-reactive immune system causes us all sorts of uncomfortable symptoms and can harm our tissues over time.
Prioritizing survival means our system holds on to things that we could actually now let go. Natural selection favours the strategy, ‘If it has worked till now, keep it.’
This is also true on a psychological level. If we are lucky, we have enough psychological stability to keep us functioning within societal norms but enough psychological plasticity to enable learning and adaptation to occur. But what has worked (or been necessary) in the past is carried forward in case the situation returns. If life has been ruthlessly traumatic, we may remain hypervigilant so that we are ready for the next onslaught. This is not a healthy condition to be in long term.
Many holding patterns are not optimal for health and well-being right now. They are survival strategies which may no longer be relevant, but which we can’t easily change—because our whole self-regulatory system is resisting change.
Change is severely constrained in living systems. Uncontrolled change and unregulated behaviour can threaten survival. Unconstrained cell division is cancer. Unconstrained enthusiasm is mania. A lack of self-regulation is ill-health and ultimately death.
Part of how bodywork works is through helping clients to manage change while recognising that an ingrained way of being is there for a reason. Whereas it might be safe (and good for our health) to release a tense holding pattern remaining in the body from a past trauma, it may not be in our best interests to let go of tension caused by currently living with a violent partner. We may need defences in place. On the other hand, if a client is stuck in hypervigilance from an experience which is unlikely to repeat then we could help them turn down the volume to something more manageable.
A good practitioner will offer suggestions for new ways of being—but leave the decision about that change to your (unconscious) self-regulation system.
We might gently open your tight painful shoulder joint to see if ‘more opening’ is OK for you. Your body might resist the stretch and refuse to change, or you might feel so much better when this area is opened that you ‘allow’ the change to remain. Either is fine. Similarly, a practitioner might change your fear-based breathing pattern allowing you to experience a temporary taste of relaxation. If this feels Ok, your system might accept the new way of breathing but, on the other hand, if this new feeling of relaxation feels unsafe, you will pop back to being ‘on alert.’ It may take a few bodywork sessions for your body-brain system to allow positive change.
If we are not offered an opportunity to change, we inevitably remain more or less the same—because that is what bodies do. Being naturally resistant to change, bodies need to be eased and encouraged with helpful suggestions. Your bodywork session is therefore a somatosensory negotiation, between you and your practitioner, about what is still useful to you, what is no longer helpful, and what feels great to let go.