Five Ways to Start Changing Chronic Pain

by Erin Ferguson, MA, GCFP

Many years ago I put this quote on my wall:

PAIN is an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a reflexive response to injury.

It is from V. S. Ramachandran, who wrote about phantom limb pain and pioneered mirror therapy. It gave me permission to relate to my own pain in new ways. It helped me see that the experience itself was malleable and not a default. People shouldn’t be blamed for being in pain. If we have pain, it’s because our system is trying to tell us something: It hurts. The way we deal with pain is the way we survive, and no one should ever be blamed for surviving.

However, it does not have to be a default. Most of us, myself included, sink into the mud of denial and try to plow forward on whatever course we've set for ourselves until the mud is too thick and we fall down, exhausted and in peril. Once we're stuck, getting unstuck can only happen slowly. 

When I lived in Wales I came across a newborn foal stuck in the mud and about to drown. To rescue him, we had to dig him out very slowly so as not to break his fragile, unformed bones. Then we slid him onto a plastic table top to bring him onto higher ground.  (Where he very sensibly peed and had something to eat.)

Getting out of pain is like that, too: A slow, attentive, spacious process, bringing patience and curiosity instead of force and strain to every possible variation in one's movement. Is it hard? Yes. But what's harder is getting stuck and losing one's health in the effort to get unstuck. Most of us don't slow down until we're in the mud and in danger. Moving onto your own personal higher ground might mean making different, perhaps better, life choices.

Five ways to start changing chronic pain:

1. Listen to yourself. The vast majority of people ignore pain and hope it goes away. Be honest: what does it feel like? What do you do unconsciously to make it go away? Take pills? Slouch? Avoid running, hiking or biking? Honestly assess what you do about it and how it affects you. Then notice what you might do more of if you felt better. Sleeping? Gardening? Smiling? Working?

2. Lie on the floor. Spend fifteen minutes a day on the floor. Do nothing. Don't stretch, do yoga, or even Feldenkrais. Dr. Feldenkrais said that if we knew how to lie on the floor well, we wouldn't need his method. If you need something under your knees, get a towel or a blanket. Take this time for yourself. It helps the vertebrae rehydrate, become bouncier, spongier, and more resilient. It helps you reconnect with gravity when you return to being upright. It's like hitting the reset button. I used to come home after work and plop immediately onto the floor in front of the door. My cat would join me. Then I would get up with easier breathing, a clearer head, and a new perspective.

3. Stop stretching and feel the bones. Most people say they feel better when they stretch, roll their shoulders, or crack their neck. Experiment with the absence of these kinds of activities for two weeks. Often we feel addicted to these movements and the temporary relief they bring, but more often than not we are overdoing it and tearing the muscle fibers. The next time you have the urge to stretch, move your attention to the bones. Imagine the weight of your muscles, flesh, and viscera supported, hanging, or resting on the bones. Imagine what it would feel like to be neutral in the muscles so they can prepare for the next action. I can't tell you how many people feel better when they stop stretching and educate the brain to use the muscles in more coordinated movement.

4. Globalize your attention. Many people obsess on the area that hurts. What about moving your attention three inches out from that area? Breathe a little there. And then move three more inches out, so you encompass a six inch circle around the area. Breathe in and out a little here. Can you creep your attention further out? Try getting to the end of a limb. Can you feel the whole arm or leg? Can you feel both arms? Both legs? The spine? The ribs? The shoulders? The hands? The jaw? The eyes? Do this in sitting, at a stoplight, in the grocery store. You'd be amazed by how the use of your attention changes your experience.

5. Slow down, make space. All of these suggestions involve slowing down. Sometimes it means stopping the activities you love for a while. Rediscovering how to move takes time, and the first thing to do is to change your habits before they change you. Creating space for deep inner listening is the first step. The next step is inquiring into the nature of your experience with an open, non-judgemental attitude. Pain from spine surgery, challenges with MS, chronic fatigue, everything in your life that feels insurmountable and impossible cannot be approached in a new way unless you create space in yourself first.

Many people don’t know how to identify when they’re uncomfortable and tend to live unconsciously in an uncomfortable state until they reach a crisis. You must learn to listen to yourself first. At this point, feeling better might entail a very slight shift. This shift won’t result in biomechanical perfection, but it will increase your comfort level. Comfort means a noticeable move toward less pain on a continuum that is appropriate for your unique life experience and history.

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Movement Exploration: Five Lines and Smile

Dr. Feldenkrais has a lot to say about the self-Image. Completing the self-image is one of the main tenets of his method because when we know where we are in space, we can better direct ourselves to carry out our intentions in the world. Most people's internal image loses elasticity and becomes fixed around age 14. But bringing attention to it can clarify your direction in life, quite literally.

He writes that, "Everyone has to face the fact that his degree of self-control directly mirrors his self-image. Improving the self-image so that it more nearly approximates reality will result in a general improvement in one's bodily actions." For example, people who hold their chest tight discover that their self-image of the chest is two to three times deeper than the chest actually is. How clearly do you think a person could direct their movements with such a distorted view?

Play with this gentle lesson to start.
Five Lines with Smile, click to play or download for later, 43 mins.