PAIN AND CHRONIC STRESS
I have a strong personal interest in the relationship between long-term pain and physical and emotional trauma and PTSD. I have known chronic pain intimately, from the inside. I lived with persistent, migrating pain for more than fifteen years, going from one doctor and health practitioner to the next. As much as they tried, no one could help me. I eventually started to research the way the body responds to stress and trauma, and my inner world finally started to make sense to me. I was finally able to make my way out of pain.
What had been missing all that time? Highly skilled doctors had determined that there was nothing medically wrong. The best chiropractors had done masterful work to improve my alignment, but I wasn’t able to hold my adjustments. With expert eyes, they evaluated my body mechanics and ruled out disease - and I remained stuck in pain. After training in the field of somatics, I realized that one important question had not been asked:
William Stewart, MD, Medical Director
Institute of Health & Healing, California Pacific Medical Center
From the film, "States of Grace"
somatic therapies | oakland ca
What it is like to reside inside a body in persistent pain? What happens when the container of our own being no longer feels safe? How do we cope when there is no way to get a break from our internal suffering? This is what I learned.
How the Nervous System Responds to Physical & Emotional Pain
Both physical and emotional pain triggers an internal biochemical alarm that causes the home of our body to feel unsafe. Our nervous system does not make a distinction between a real or perceived threat, so even garden variety stress can keep us in a state of vigilance that doesn’t allow our body and mind to return to equilibrium. Chronic pain is a constant stressor. It speaks loudly, grabbing our attention, making it difficult to notice anything else. Like a drop of ink in a glass of water, it can color every aspect of life – affecting our ability to work, sleep, concentrate, socialize, exercise and perform even routine tasks. Pain and the fear of pain keeps our muscles braced and tight. We become hyper focused on every tiny sensation, worrying that the pain will get worse or never go away – or we tune out and disconnect from our body. Both are natural responses, and both keep us stuck in chronic pain. So, living with chronic physical and emotional pain becomes, in and of itself, a traumatic experience.
Once you start to understand how the nervous system responds to all kinds of pain, including trauma and PTSD, this self-perpetuating cycle starts to make sense. Chronic pain creates two kinds of dilemmas or unsolved problems in the body.
One: When we perceive danger, unconscious protective responses are automatically triggered in our brain. The first impulse is to fight or flee. The body prepares for this by bracing and pulling energy inward, like a spring readying for action. If we succeed in defending ourselves and return to a sense of calm and safety, this defensive energy is released and our muscles relax. If we cannot adequately protect ourselves, residual crisis-energy gets stored in the nervous system, causing our body's energetic spring to get stuck. This keeps our muscles braced, our energy pulled in and our nervous system on high alert.
Two: What's a body to do when the source of fear and distress is not coming from the outside world, but from sensations inside our own body? When fighting and fleeing are not good solutions, the body automatically goes into the next phase: the freeze response. This causes us to brace our muscles to minimize movement and pain. We tune out or disconnect from painful areas to function better. These are good short term solutions. But the body quickly develops the habit of tension and disconnecting from itself. This prevents these protective responses from 'completing', leaving crisis energy bound in our nervous system. This takes the form of chronic muscle tension that presses on nerves, compresses joints and pulls the body out of alignment. This internal hypervigilance also amps up our stress response, reduces blood flow, limits our breathing capacity and effects all systems in the body.
Developing a Friendly Relationship with a Painful or Fearful Body
One of the first steps on the path to relieving chronic physical and emotional pain is cultivating a sense of safety in the home of your body. This begins with inviting curiosity about your internal landscape and learning how to be present with the sensations you find there. As contradictory as this sounds, one of the best ways out of chronic pain is to become fascinated with it. When you start to learn how to read the sensory language of your body, you often find that it has been trying to show you the way out of pain all along. My goal is to help you cultivate a sense of safety, resilience and faith in your body (and in your life), even in moments of great suffering. This is the most powerful skill you can develop for relieving chronic pain, chronic stress, trauma and PTSD.
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