I notice a couple of things happen when I am dealing with physical pain in my life (which regular class members will know has been an issue this past month). The first thing I think is “THIS SHOULD NOT BE SO”!!!! I consider myself fit and flexible despite my large frame and it’s a shock to be dealing with “something wrong”. So the first mental activity toward it is resistance. And we all know what happens with what we resist – it persists!
The second part of “This should not be so” is feelings of anger and then the question of “who is to blame”? Of course, I’m not unusual in having these reactions to pain, actually pain of any type, including grief and loss. This is part of the human condition. To be endlessly dissatisfied with life, to be looking back to a blissful time when this pain (physical, mental or emotional) wasn’t with me and to hanker after a future moment when it will be gone if I can have my way.
Unfortunately, it is this mindset that worsens pain. There is a plethora of research that demonstrates that whilst the primary reaction of the brain in terms of the raw data it receives may be the same from person to person – (we would see this on a brain scan for instance) the way in which the brain process the pain sensations is vastly dependent on the person’s life experience and brain training which is something we will be discussing in Yoga this week.
The most common causes of pain are Low Back Pain, Arthritis, Injury, Headaches, Cancer, Heart Disease, Fibromyalgia, Coeliac Disease, Lupus, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Perhaps you have more than one on this list? If you type pain management into google, in less than a second, you’ll get 961,000,000 results so we are all looking for help in this matter and it’s more common than you think!
The sensations in your body are mapped across the cortex of your brain and some areas of your body are more sensitive than others. This was demonstrated by Penfield (1937) in the 1930s who was doing research into Parkinson’s disease. He was the first to decipher two different maps of brain receptor sites we call the sensory and motor homunculi.
This is the reason why you will hear me focus on certain areas more than others during Yoga Nidra sessions, for instance, I will nearly always mention the tongue three times!
Your mind’s reaction to pain can be seen to light up on brain scans and is influenced by the endorphin-like substances that the brain stem produces which can muffle the pain. This is why low impact exercise every day is the best method to control chronic pain, especially in the back. It’s disappointing when folk don’t come to dancing because of back pain when that might be the very thing that will reduce the experience of pain, especially because the spine needs to bend and move.
This secondary reaction can be more powerful depending on the context. For instance, soldiers and civilians with exactly the same injuries will experience it entirely differently. For the soldier, s/he is on his way out of the battlefield and on her / his way home. For the civilian, s/he is on the way to the operating theatre with all the terror that may involve so their pain scales are through the roof in comparison.
The mind both feels and processes pain and will amplify it where a negative spiral has worn tracks in the mind (like downtrodden grass across a field). Have you ever noticed how your pain is always worse at night and this is when you begin to catastrophes (“will this ever stop”. “Is this migraine actually a brain tumour or a Stroke coming on” etc etc). This is the meaning-making ability of the brain to control how we deal with pain. More brain tissue has been shown on scans to be dedicated to pain sensation in those whose experience of pain is worsened by the mind’s reaction to pain and those who have never learned to use meditation, breathing or relaxation techniques in their lives…
Generally speaking what opens the flood gates in terms of pain are our experiences of sensory dysfunction by way of poor body awareness and mechanics, an inability to pace oneself in life, narcotic use. If we have the tendency to catastrophes because of anxious thinking or depression we are also less likely to cope with pain or experience pain lightly.
It is well reported in the addiction literature that those who are unable to tolerate life going their way, react strongly to things going “wrong” and this includes pain. The same can be said for other negative emotions such as stress, frustration, irritability, anger, sleep deprivation, inability to exercise, increased or decreased appetite and learned helplessness which often accompany our experience of pain. Hence the need to add a little numbing drug or alcohol into the mix. Whilst what we resist persists, if we focus obsessively on pain, this will also give rise to the pain gates opening. Those with less outside interests and general self-obsession will also suffer more.
In contrast, you will therefore suffer less if you are using meditation and relaxation techniques; if you become skilled at distracting the mind from pain and if you have a positive mental attitude toward life. However this isn’t to be muddled with ignoring pain, wishing it away or trying to fake positivity, it is more about believing you have the power within your mind to find different ways to deal with the pain (notice I say “the” pain and not “your” pain).
The good news is that even if your brain has turned up pain experience to max, you can dial this down using mindfulness techniques. In clinical trials, it has been shown to be at least as effective as drugs and has the extra benefit of making the patient feel empowered since they and not drugs are affecting the changes. The key elements are to observe, rather than be caught up in your pain; to be aware of your breath, keeping it shallow, quiet and through the nose and to remember that you are not your thoughts.
Here are a few pain relieving meditation techniques to try:
Using your mind’s compassionate eye, bring your full awareness to the symptoms, noting carefully what affects them (eg cold with arthritis or putting weight through the area) including what makes the pain experience lessen. This is where Yoga, particularly SOMATIC yoga comes into it’s own as we are increasing our awareness of the body. We are learning to stop living in our heads (where all the interpretation of what is going on when we are in pain is happening). We are also learning that the supposed natural aches and pains of older age are not indeed natural at all and part of the Red Light Reflex in particular.
Are there changes in pain – does it come and go in waves? When you really look, it is always the case that the pain is moving and changing.
Give your attention to a non-painful part of your body. For instance, imagine your hand warming up. You can alternate sensations of hot and cold or an anaesthetic being given to your hand, then put it on the part of the body that is painful and see what effect it has!
Imagine your pain as a ball of colour. A good colour to choose is red as we associate it with blood and anger. As you gently inhale, imagine the ball growing smaller and gradually changing colour to a more restful hue (eg blue)
Imagine an ice pack on the painy part
Move the pain to an area that it’s easier to cope with.
Use a positive mindset to remind yourself that life doesn’t always go perfectly the way you want it too!
Remind yourself that the pain has happened. Just happened. Not BECAUSE of anything you did wrong (you don’t deserve it) or anyone else did something wrong (no one deserves your wrath). Get off the merry-go-round of the blame game…
Penfield, W & Boldrey, E (1937) Somatic Motor and Sensory Representation in the Cerebral Cortex of Man as Studied by Electrical Stimulation. Brain 60 (4): 389-443
Homonculus courtesy of wikipedia