This week I managed to stub and sprain my toe on a pesky paving stone. So undramatic an event, and yet pretty painful. But what I know about pain these days meant the way I dealt with it was different.
Previously, I would have told everyone about my mishap through the day. I would have spent lots of my day thinking about it.
But I know that does little more than reinforce the message of pain in the brain. When we pay attention to any idea, emotion, sensation, we make it more important and larger.
We make the neural connections faster, until it’s a tunnel, where it can zoom around the brain even faster. Which if it’s a skill pattern, is useful, but amplifying pain, not so much.
I was pretty sure it wasn’t broken. (Not much gets done for a broken toe anyway, unless it’s the big one). So each time I noticed the pain from my hurt toe I thought about the other toe instead. The one on the other foot that didn’t hurt.
I would scan the rest of myself too, to remind my brain that it’s a very small part of the whole. I had to do this quite a lot the first day.
Not to ignore the fact I’d hurt it, but to dial down the message size coming from the brain. To lessen the impact. We’re wired to feel pain. The signal is designed that we pay attention. It’s a police siren for inside the mind. But it doesn’t come from the limb itself, it comes from the brain, from the central nervous system.
And it’s easy for neural patterns of pain to start make neural land grab. You remember the pain, you talk about it, you feel sorry for yourself, you remember it some more. That pain then amplified as its stored in the memory. and in each retelling, it’s as if it’s happening again now. The brain can’t tell the difference. It’s what happens in PTSD and other traumatic events.
The memory of the pain gets stored in a larger and larger part of the memory as we relive it. It becomes a habitual thought. The strands of memory start to roll a larger skein. Soon because of the increasing memory of pain, we start to think and worry about future pain. Which we sense as fear. When we’re fearful, we get tense. When we’re tense, we move less well. Tension creates friction, which slows us down. It also creates more wear and tear on the musculo-skeletal system. Which then causes pain. Which then creates more fear. And before we know it, we’ve got these brain patterns of pain and fear all knotted up with memory and future. Growing together.
So, one way of dampening down the pain signal is to get better perspective. It’s one of 10 toes. Only one hurts. 9 don’t. The pain signal lessens. The toes, they’re not even half a foot. The rest of the foot is fine. The other one ‘s more than fine. The legs feel OK, and they’re much bigger. By the time I’ve worked my way through scanning around my torso my toe has stopped feeling so massive in its pain. It’s gone back to its usual proportion. Which is a tiny weeny proportion of the whole of me. So much of me doesn’t hurt, I’m not anxious.
A common fear when something hurts, or we’re ill is that it will never go away. Which makes us fearful about the future. I’m attempting to keep my experience into the here and now.
When we pay attention to our physical self in the present, we dampen down the default mode network (DMN) of our brain. The DMN is trying to protect us, by thinking about fear and worry, but often it isn’t that useful. It creates cyclical thought which doesn’t lead to action, but rather spirals up into panic, if we let it get that far.
Our brain’s Direct Sensing network, which feels touch, or kinaesthetic movement, turns off the DMN. It’s why Feldenkrais is so effective for so many people. We learn the skill of scanning, of paying attention to ourselves in movement. We learn to control our attention, focussing in on one area, and out to the whole. Over time, this skill means more control and freedom. And more choices.
I can choose to pay attention to pain, but I can also send my attention elsewhere. Our life is what we pay attention to.
I realise some of you might be sceptical. And let’s be realistic, the bigger the amount of pain, the harder this technique is to do. Like anything, it requires practice, and discipline. Which is challenging if you’re in high levels of pain. I’ve practiced this technique post surgery. It didn’t get rid of the pain, (but nor did the drugs) but did it dampen it down. If you can make a difference at all by simply changing your thinking, that’s got to be worth an experiment. If nothing else, it can give you a sense of agency, that you can do something for yourself.
Disagree? Or agree, I’m always pleased to hear your opinions, feel free to comment.
Main picture. Flare by Hugo Jehanne @unsplash