What do we need to feel better? Sometimes it's just someone to listen to our woes with a sympathetic ear. No judgement.
And sometimes we need more.
If you’ve healed from an injury but are still suffering from pain months later, what’s happened? Maybe your pain is worse than when you had the injury. Maybe your health practitioner has told you your tissues are healed and you’re left feeling that your pain is all in your head. Except you know it’s not, because it HURTS. And it hurts even more because you are not getting any sympathy. It’s like a vicious cycle. How to break it?
The best way to begin interrupt the cycle of chronic pain is to understand what's happening. Your nervous system, brilliant, intricate, amazing as it is, has gotten cranky. Wired up. More sensitive. Waaay more sensitive. The whole mind-body-spirit network is involved when you feel chronic pain. Your pain is in your brain – but not in your head. Your brain is creating pain based on danger signals it’s receiving from certain nerves. If your brain is interpreting these danger signals as dangerous and needing immediate attention, you’ll feel pain. If your brain does not interpret the signals as dangerous, no pain results. This is why in some life-threatening circumstances, people may not feel the pain of an injury until much later, after the life-threatening situation has passed. The injury may not be as important in the moment as getting out of the situation.
The good news is that your brain is the most powerful way to control chronic pain. Your brain can turn the volume of danger signals up and excite the system even more or it can turn the volume of the danger signals down by inhibiting them. The chemicals that inhibit the danger signals are 40-50% more powerful than the excitatory chemicals. Inhibitory chemicals include serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Endorphins are more powerful than morphine. They are released when we practise habits that bring pleasure – e.g., hugging, stroking pets, laughing, faith practices, and other pleasant activities. So if you’re having fun, you’re less likely to feel pain.
If you’re in pain, you may try to avoid pain altogether, or to push through it and ignore your own suffering. Neither of these approaches work if you want to reduce and change your pain. Passive strategies include waiting for change, resting, and avoiding activity altogether. Active strategies, those that encourage us to seek understanding of the issue, explore new ways to move, and bump up against the pain without either avoiding it or pushing through it, have been shown to be the most effective at reducing pain.
Pain is always attached to an emotional story. Your brain interprets the danger signals it receives and assigns a reaction – pain or no pain. Finding a way to move that feels safe is an important step in breaking the cycle of pain. Over time, nerves will send fewer danger signals, your brain will perceive more and more movement patterns as safe, and your brilliant, cranky nervous system will start to calm down.
Pain also disconnects us from feeling our bodies. Pain is a very loud signal, and it can be difficult to feel anything else. Working to bring awareness back to the body can help to reduce pain. Pain control is therefore about practising changing the sensation of pain. Nervous system change thrives on slow and subtle methods, and so yoga’s methods are brilliantly devised for this type of change. Because the brain becomes good at what it practises, persistent consistent practice of moving in a way that feels safe helps to rewire the nervous system to reduce or eliminate pain.
To change pain, we can start with any part of the mind-body-spirit network, and the change will work its way through the whole system. It does not matter where we begin - with the breath, thoughts and emotions, meditation, or movement – or any or all of these. Begin, and healing will happen. Start by understanding your goals. Find an activity that you enjoy. Add one that helps you to feel calm. And then practise moving in a way that feels safe, yet pushes against the pain threshold.
To reduce and manage pain, it is important to practise every day – even several times a day. Since danger neurons are reconstructed every few days, the more you practise moving in a range of motion that feels safe, that allows easeful breath, yet gently challenges the pain threshold, the more quickly the pain will be reduced or eliminated. Change may be slow or it may be swift. Patience and persistence are key.
Practices include gentle movement with breath awareness and control. Movement with slow transitions is important, as many injuries are caused when moving in and out of poses quickly. Gentle movement helps to produce the inhibitory chemicals (serotonin, dopamine and endorphins) that turn down the danger signals.
Meditation can help to relieve chronic pain, as thoughts and emotions play a strong role in how the brain perceives the danger signals coming in. Meditation produces beneficial changes in the brain, particularly the areas that are involved in pain processing. These areas are affected by thoughts, emotions and beliefs. Meditating in a comfortable position allows you to become aware of the thoughts, fears and beliefs that are contributing to the pain. Developing compassion and awareness helps to lower the firing of the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the healing parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. As stress is reduced through regular meditation, pain can also be relieved. Living in the present moment, as happens in meditative practice, reduces or eliminates the emotional story that pain sufferers carry with them.
Restorative Yoga, or the practice of completely relaxing using bolsters, blocks and blankets for support and warmth, teaches us how to relax in the body. By elevating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest and heal), and reducing the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze), the danger signals to the brain begin to decrease.
Donna offers a holistic perspective on the relationship and healing of physical and emotional pain.