Working with, or moving past fear of pain

Photo: JJ-Ying (Unsplash)

Some excellent questions came up in one of my last classes, one of which hinged around fear:

How do we work with or move past fear, when moving, if we’re concerned about restrictions of movement, or pain?

To start with, I would ask where is the realm of comfort for you? Where you can move easily, painlessly, could be millimeters of movement, or fractions of that.

Even if we don’t move, but imagine the movements, the Feldenkrais Method has an effect. Why? Because it works with how our brains work. We visualise everything in the brain.

When we imagine moving, our neural networks light up as if we were actually moving. So we’re wiring the brain even when we imagine movements. Perhaps even more so. There was a study some time ago, when neuroscientists looked at the brain activity of a concert pianist and an amateur pianist, both playing the same concerto. The professional’s brain activity was more streamlined, and the amateur had way more areas of the brain at work to play the same thing. However, when they were asked to imagine playing the piece of music, the brain images were more similar. As if the strands of neural connection were more efficient in imagination.

Another question would be where’s the border between thought and action for you? Often when we think of moving we activate all the muscles in preparation, and even make micro-movements. It needs very little actual movement to connect the brain and body. We can also play with the border between imagination and movement. In many Feldenkrais Method lessons, or in our practice we imagine moving. There’s a very thin line between thought and action. 

Because Feldenkrais is not about exercise, it’s not about strengthening the muscles, about improving the way your brain is working in relation to our physical self. If you are worried or scared of moving, of causing yourself pain, this is where I would play. 

Try it yourself. Bring your arm up, with an imaginary key in your hand, and imagine rotating the arm, as if you were turning a key in a lock. 

Whilst you aren’t doing the movement per se, I would suggest that you’re probably making the musculoskeletal preparatory movements of getting ready to move, and for many, rotating the tiniest amount. 

Photo: Alina Grubnyak @Unsplash

Fear often also brings its own patterns of tension. We all have movement and stabilising patterns associated with fear. Depending on our personal history they will be different , but there are often similarities. We tend to create stability or a sense of safety in fear by constriction of muscles, to create our own armour of muscles. We often stiffen, and adapt our movements around the area of pain, which then in turn creates new adaptive patterns of movements, which can create secondary layers of pain. Which were nothing to do with the original problem.

When we feel truly safe, then we can relax more, our muscles work less hard before we act. We often walk around with layers of tension we don’t know about until they’re gone. The tension might build up slowly over time so we don’t notice the arrival, only that perhaps it’s difficult to be comfortable.

When we reduce the movement down to something that isn’t painful, even if it’s so small it barely exists, we allow our brains to feel a pain-free initiation of movement. Once your brain knows pain isn’t always present, it can make big changes. After all, pain is created in the central nervous system, not in the actual parts of the body where it manifests. When we move in a way that feels good to us, that can also allow us to feel safer, and reduce the muscle tonus.

So do a lot lot less in a lesson, do as little as possible. Then moving fearfully isn’t the issue. Without the patterns of tension fear brings, I think you’ll move differently.  Once you have an experience which is different, you can begin to distinguish the difference between the two, and feel what fear brings to the table. That for many, the fear of pain can be as limiting as the actual pain.

Chronic pain is not only the pain signal of present pain, but also the memory of old pain, and the fear of new. If we can reduce the amount of the brain that lights up with an action, back to what is occurring in the moment rather than memory or future fears, that’s a positive step. There will already be less felt pain.

For our brain, that ability to distinguish differences is what makes the difference. It’s not about strengthening or stretching, but connections. Clearer, more accurate mapping of the body in your mind. That increased awareness helps us understand how much pain we can’t avoid, (if we have physical issues) and where we can start to make a difference.

It’s one of the reasons in a Feldenkrais Method lesson you’ll be asked to move small and slow. Moving slowly allows us to learn with as little strain or effort as possible. So that you’re weaving ease into the new learning you do in a class, not strain or pain. Moving slowly also allows us to feel more. The information sent to the brain is of higher quality, as if there were more pixels in the image. Moving small and slow switches on the slow muscles fibres of a muscle, the ones that organise the skeleton. Which you want before you add power to the situation. Ideally we add power on top of optimal skeletal organisation.

When you move slow, you can feel when you’re approaching a limitation, rather than only feeling the aftermath of going too far. Then you have choice. We can always push through pain. Sometimes that’s a necessity, but often it’s rather a compulsion, or habit. When we have more options, and more refined information, our brains can make better decisions. When we’ve got less overall tension, we can feel more of ourselves, and what we’re doing. Which again sends better information back through the nervous system.

Our brains can only parse what we give them, we can do best when information is both understood and felt. When theory becomes the knowledge of experience

it doesn’t have to be a compulsion. When we have more choice, we can then make better decisions, and these decisions are made physically at a subconscious level. Not if we can find other ways of improving the quality of what we do. And in my experience, no matter where you start, Feldenkrais is one of the best ways of learning how to act differently.

If you’re interested to find out more, come to a class or workshop, and try it out.

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