Because every part of us is constantely being affected by innner and outer influences we are all in a constant state of flux. When we are in pain we often, consiously or unconsiously work against this notion : The search for a path out of the pain can become a desperate search for a static state where everything is just right; where we imagine that we will be in control. But what if this is not the way to navigate? What if the one thing we need to master in our work with pain is instead the capacity for state change, as supposed to holding a fixed state? And what is the one pre-requisite for being able to do this?
The nervoussystem is, according to Dr. Stephen Porges, most of the time responding not to the real world but to our subconcious interpretation of the signals that our “neuroception” picks up.
Neuroception is the term Porges coined for the unconcious part of our nervoussystem which is constantly on the lookout, assesing our degree of safety from both internal and external dangers.
We know what it feels like when our neuroception senses danger. To be in a “fear-brain”- state of mind is exhausting and also narrows our experience of reality, and when we experience long term pain our neuroception tends to bombard us with signals that we are in fact in danger.
Stressors and sensitivity
When giving a talk about Pain at the Timani sertification at the Musician´s Health and Movement Institute the other weekend the topic of “Stressors” came up. Stressors, as in the things or situations in our lives which, depending on their number, can increase our sensitivity to pain.
Pain is a complex phenomenon consisting of several systems giving, receiving and interpreting information. The basic role of pain is to alert us to things which are potentially harmfull and to make sure we choose the most expedient way of action to avoid injury. (For the curious mind: Here is a nice article, only in Norwegian, sorry, about the different pain systems and how the plasticity of these systems, their ability to change, can be both a blessing and a curse (article: smertens nevrobiologi))
However, our subjective experience of pain is also depending on our degree of sensitivity which is directly affected by the amount of stressors in our life and our ability to tolerate them. A stressor might be any social factor, lifestyle factor or health factor which, for you personally and at this particular moment in your life, is adding a strain which is increasing your sensitivity.
The Cup of Tolerance
In his free downloadable “recovery strategies – your pain guidebook” Greg Lehman, physiotherapist, chiropractor and strength and conditioning specialist, adresses the psychosocial riskfactors in pain and injury management from a neuroscientific perspective.
He introduces the “Cup of Tolerance” as a metaphore for when the stressors in our life exceeds our ability to carry them. Working with stressors involves becoming aware of them, and removing them or increasing our tolerance for them, or in Lehmans terms “building a bigger cup”. A first step is, however, becoming aware of our stressors.
But what if becoming aware of our stressors results in a feeling of despair and helplessness? Like one of the participants in this weekend sertification shared “I became aware that most of my stressors are factors in my life over which I have no control”.
Fear = either – or
This is a great chance to adress something important to remember when it comes to stress and pain:
When we experience pain from a state of unsafety our mind is very often caught in the fear-brain mode mentioned earlier, and here´s an interesting thing about this mode:
Fear-brain tends to collapse every situation into binaries:
“My only option is to stay or go, to confront or avvoid, to put down my foot or let everything slide, to react in an xx-way or to shut down”.
In other words: when our brain is caught in fear and unsafety-mode it tends to be blind to the myriad of available possibilities that every situation acctually holds and limits our choices to two or three which usually both tends to be extremes.
It also holds the notion that in an imagined future situation where we are adressing our stressors in some way “I” will be the only person who are changing and that the other people involved in the situation will be unaffected or only affected in a negative way by my altered reactions or actions.
Our fear-brain is blind to the fact that every change, no matter how small, has butterfly effects.
Therefor the pre-requisite for being neurologically able to adress anything which might add to our present pain-situation is always to find a gentle way to navigate into a sense of safety.
What makes you feel safe? Here is a list with some of my favourite strategies. Make your own and use it as a way to support yourself when you want to work with adressing stressors from a state of flexibility and safety.
- A warm waterbotle on my stomach
- Lots of physical safe contact from people I trust
- Close contact with the ground
- Hugging big trees
- Lying facedown on gras
- Touching different textures (rugs, cloth, floorboards, rocks, earth, grass, water, sand)
- Soft humming
- A burning candle
- A special selection of breathing exercises
- A special selection of mental exercises
- The presence of other self-regulating people
- Slow concious movement