People witness our physical difficulties. They see our steps stutter, our backs bend over, our hands shake. But what they can’t see is just how much our physical symptoms are tied up with our mental state. I festinate on my way to sitting down, for instance, because the excitement of having a seat in front of me causes me to lose focus on my stride. I know my steps shrink when I am walking through a tight space because I fear I will not be able to navigate it. Two friends of mine even rate horror movies based on how much the emotional excitement of the films increases their tremors (imagine: according to my hand that was an 8 out of 10!).
So while our mental state may not be the definitive cause of our problems, it often plays a major role in the degree to which our symptoms cause us trouble. As a result, learning to control our mental state, which includes how we direct our focus and manage our feelings, can be an essential part of learning how to control and mitigate the physical difficulties presented by PD.
One symptom of Parkinson’s for which this is particularly true is freezing of gait. For the vast majority of people I work with, freezing occurs when they are overly focused on somewhere they want to go. Often, this is the result of being in a high-pressured situation. A ringing telephone might be making an immediate demand on them, or they may be faced with an elevator they have to enter before the door closes, or a crosswalk they have to brave as the walk sign ticks down. Whatever the particular case, the person experiencing freezing is usually fixated on a destination ahead of them, and feels the need to get there quickly. When they try to move and their limbs don’t respond right away, their nerves begin to rise. With each paralyzed second they yearn more and more to reach their goal, and their anxiety increases as they sense their opportunity slipping away.
The best way to counter this negative cycle, accordingly, is to lessen our focus on our destination. We can do this by a kind of mental slight of hand. Instead of continuing to try to push forward, we can unlock our gait by taking an indirect route. This can allow us to calm down and refocus on the movement of our bodies. The counter intuitive nature of taking an indirect route forces our minds to give more attention to our movement and less to our desired destination. This shift not only brings our focus back to our bodies, it also helps us interrupt and reduce anxiety. On a subconscious level, this diminishes the importance of the destination, which helps free us of our fixation.
What exactly do I mean by an “indirect path”? Let’s look at an example by way of a (playful) two-part video. In the first part, I’m paralyzed by desire with unlucky results. In the second part, I redirect my path in a half circle with a happier outcome.
Joking aside, by taking a roundabout route toward where I wanted to go I was able to free myself to move. This is the mental slight of hand: choosing the unexpected, apparently wrong direction in pursuit of the goal. I didn’t actually give up my objective, but my brain was fooled and my stasis overcome by altering my direction. There are other options for redirection that can also help. If you find yourself stuck trying to go forward, reverse direction by taking a step back, then move ahead again. This is another choice that could get me to that lucky find on the sidewalk.
A third option for avoiding freezing is to prepare to move before you have to. If you are in a situation in which you anticipate you may freeze, adjust your stance by stepping back with one foot so that your feet are staggered. This will allow you to start more easily when it’s time to go. This could be of help in the very common situation mentioned before of freezing while trying to enter an elevator. I do this in the last video here, and in addition, I make use of the wall for a further aid – I push off to get myself going. (Note also that I lightly touch the wall beside the elevator to steady myself as I enter, another instance of using your environment for support.)
Keeping these simple techniques in mind should help in any situation, even those that may be less pressured than my examples here. Freezing does not only occur under stress after all, and knowing that you have some quick ways to help yourself initiate movement if you get stuck can make you more confident in venturing out into the world. Whatever the circumstance, if you find yourself frazzled and unable to move, try outsmarting your Parkinson’s by taking an indirect, counter-intuitive route.
For another article that deals with freezing you can take a look at Core Concept: Learn the Physical Logic Behind Problem Movements.
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