“Ouch!” I stubbed my toe on my shopping cart the other day only to feel that familiar surge of pain a few seconds later. I immediately forgot about it and stowed my groceries into the trunk so I could rush through traffic to make it to yoga class in time. After settling onto my mat I noticed a pool of blood clotting from a sizable cut on my toe. The realization of my pain came back because of the crimson reminder I saw below me.
This a good example of the principle that Dr. Renee Ostertag spoke about in her talk on Redefining Pain at Park Meadows Pilates and Physical Therapy a few weeks ago. Renee shared with us a significant fact about pain: it’s 100% an output of our brain, based on our perception of danger.
Is pain really dangerous?
Of course, pain can be triggered by acute, literal sensation in our body, and it can also be triggered by the visible sensory response to blood, like in my case. And we’ve all heard stories of valiant war heroes who’ve dealt with phantom limbs and the feeling of actual pain where there is no longer an arm or a leg.
Even the queasiness we feel in our stomachs when we think about something sad or scary, or the feeling that we have to urinate when we hear water running is a demonstration of the brain’s power over our bodies’ sensations.
Pain does not always mean danger–but to our brain, it feels as though it does!
Is Your Brain More Like Silly Putty or Cement?
Renee jokingly compares pain to a bad mother-in-law: you may not get along with her and that can be upsetting if you don’t change our own perception of her. She might not change, but your feelings toward her can. As the saying goes, “change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change.” (Wayne Dyer)
The bad mother-in-law metaphor describes the concept of neuroplasticity–the fact that neural pathways and synapses can actually change through behavior, thoughts and movement. This new concept of neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held belief that the brain is static and unpliable. In the last decade, research has shown this is not the case.
Renee cited one of her patients who’d had neck surgery: the more he talked about it, the worse his pain got and the more agitated he became. Another patient was a woman with plantar fasciitis whose husband also had the same condition. When she complained of it to her husband, her dialogue made his own symptoms worse!
Nine words for pain relief
Renee suggests that there are nine words that can give you 80% relief from your pain: For example, if you’re still experiencing pain long after breaking your ankle, you can say to yourself these nine magic words “You did break your ankle, but it’s healed now.”
After an injury or a surgery, even when your tissues have technically healed, your body may still respond in a negatively protective manner because your brain told you to do so initially, and then you continued to practice this behavior and became really good at it. You created those negative neural pathways just by thinking the same thoughts over and over again.
The key to getting out of the fear response to pain, says Renee, is to move from using your lizard brain, (your amygdala) and its flight fight or freeze response, and into using your wizard brain (your frontal cortex), and it’s its rest and digest response, so that your executive functions and rational thinking take over and you become calm and no longer afraid.
“I help people change their thoughts and literally change their brain,” says Renee. How amazing is that?
Three ways out of the fear/pain cycle
Next time you’re exasperated by your chronic pain, here’s a way to alleviate the feelings of being stuck and out of control:
1. Take a breath! Breathe in for 10 counts, then out for 10 counts. With this simple action you’ve literally rerouted your neural pathway from lizard brain (amygdala) to wizard brain (frontal cortex), where your executive functions originate.
2. Ask yourself, “How dangerous is this, really?” Ask help from your intuition, your gut, God or any higher source you look to for strength. Check in with yourself and evaluate things: “Oh, yeah, tissues heal, I’m not hurt anymore.” Then you’ll begin to develop a rational dialogue with yourself that sounds like this: “I can do this, I can find a way out,” or, “No one has ever died from knee pain.”
3. Look for safe things around you. Find a way to make it funny—humor lights up your frontal cortex. Say things like, “Well, at least I still have my clothes on!” or “I can feel the floor, so I must be ok,” or “Look, it’s raining outside.”
Here’s more good news: two to three weeks of repeated action and thoughts like this can change the actual structure of your brain, which means your brain will change the output it gives you.
Now go get yourself some silly putty as a visible reminder that your brain can truly change–and start playing again!
Would you like to experience Renee’s program and reduce your pain? Join her 4-week Pain Boot Camp coming later this month.
~ by Tracy Greenhalgh