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  • Writer's pictureElfreda Manahan-Vaughan

When pain isn't all in your head but also isn't all in your body.

Many of you may know that in the past 4 years I was diagnosed with 3 chronic illnesses, two of which, Hypermobile Spectrum Disorder and Fibromyalgia cause chronic pain. I firmly believe the Fibromyalgia is caused by my other illnesses but also that much of the pain I experience is something I can have some modicum of control over. 'How is that possible?' you may ask. The answer is that as a mindfulness and meditation teacher, I know how powerful a body scan can be for minimising your pain.

One of the treatments for my chronic pain is regular physio. The physio will often ask me about my pain and I have always tried to describe my pain in terms of sensation rather than just how painful it is. You will regularly hear me say things like, 'it's not exactly pain but I am aware of it' or 'its more of a pinching sensation (insert alternatives such as burning, throbbing, tingling or dragging) than painful'. Learning to use language like this has been a life saver, as it is so easy to describe how you are feeling in terms of pain and in turn feel worse. Saying 'I am in pain' is such a global term and doesn't leave much room for the fact that other parts of my body may actually feel totally fine. Scanning my body on a regular basis means I can have some control over where I direct my attention. I can focus on the most uncomfortable part or I can also notice that somewhere else feels ok, or even good.

Recently, I came across a book about Pain Reprocessing Therapy (The Way Out by Alan Gordon). In a nutshell it is a methodology that uses the body scan and some other techniques to distinguish functional pain, pain that has a functional cause, such as an injury, and neuro-plastic pain, pain that the brain creates and signals to the body to feel in an attempt to protect you. I love a good word to describe something and the term neuro-plastic pain has really landed for me. Having a word to describe the pain that my fibromyalgia causes had been almost liberating, not just because it helps me to understand it but also because it allows me to me to know that it is temporary and with the right focus and attention it will mostly likely go.

Here's an example. I regularly get something called paresthesia. This is a type of pain that can manifest anywhere in the body and can be burning, stinging, shooting or throbbing pain. I usually get them in the second half of the day and when they are really bad it can difficult to walk or sit still. What I now know, is that much of my paresthesia is neuro-plastic pain, which means it has originated in my mind rather than just in my body. By recognising that, I can acknowledge it but also not get caught up in the story of the pain and rest in the awareness that in a couple of hours it will be gone.

In Pain Reprocessing, Alan Gordon, calls the body scan, Somatic Tracking. Somatic tracking allows you to break down the sensation of pain into its component parts, much as I described early. If I track my pain, I can also minimise it by noticing it only exists in one place and by calling it neuro-plastic I can also recognise that there is no functional cause and that I am okay and more importantly that I am not in danger. Which brings me to the biggest learning I have had in the past few weeks when it comes to my pain. Fear is is one of the universal factors when it comes to chronic pain.

For anyone who has a understanding of chronic pain you will also know that there is a direct correlation with trauma and chronic pain. In fact most fibromyalgia sufferers have experienced some kind of trauma, with childhood trauma often being top of the list. The piece of the puzzle that has been missing for me is not the awareness that fear and helpless are a large part of chronic pain but that safety is the antidote to neuro-plastic pain. Duh! you might say, and I would agree but for me what I have been missing is that I have not been sending signals of safety to my body when I have been in pain because my diagnoses have kept me focused on how some of my pain is functional and not neuro-plastic.

For the past few weeks I have been sending signals of safety to my body. For someone who meditates and is trained in parts-work and NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) this is not too difficult for me, it might be different for others. What I have noticed is my parasthesia has reduced, and my ability to cope with some of my other pain, such as an inflamed radial nerve in my arm and hand, has increased exponentially. How I know it's working is that I had a really tough day recently and something happened that triggered a shame part of mine from childhood. The story it told me in my head triggered feelings of hypervigilance and threat and guess what? That night I had the most painful, burning knees, for the first time in weeks. As soon as it started I knew I wasn't sending signals of safety to my body. I also knew I had to be kind to my fearful parts and lastly, I had to engage in some avoidance behaviours, another part of pain reprocessing therapy. Guess what? By the time I went to bed that night, the pain in my knees was gone and without any pain killers. This has been life-changing as it now helps me to see that working on my sense of safety in the world, is not only better for my mental and emotional health and for my attachment needs but also for my physical health.

If you are curious about how to send signals of safety to your body then it's helpful to get a real sense of what safety feels like but also how to use meditation and mindfulness to pay attention, moment to moment, to when you feel safe and what that feels like. If, like me, you spent a large portion of your life feeling unsafe then knowing what that feels like can be difficult. Using your imagination or having someone guide you to some somatic awareness of what safety might feel like can be helpful, and because I am biased NLP is really helpful for this also. As always if you want to chat to me about coaching, my Zoom booking is always open. thanks for reading.

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