One of the tools I’ve learned from the pain clinic is so simple that it’s hard to imagine it would be so effective. It’s three easy steps: stop, observe, and breathe. We’re encouraged to do this when feeling stress, fear, or some wild narrative in our head taking over.
Over the past year I’ve developed a lot of awareness of my body, myself, and the present moment. Before that I don’t think I recognized when I felt stress, which makes it that much harder to manage.
I remember one year ago, shortly after starting the clinic, I was driving in traffic. I remember suddenly being aware of stress rising in my chest. I automatically said to myself, “Ok, let it go.” This was a phrase that our feldenkreis teacher would use during our lessons after we had been holding a posture. I was pleasantly surprised that this awareness, and then release and relief, was becoming an automatic response.
When I recognize I’m feeling stress or thinking stressful thoughts, I do my best to remember to: Stop. Observe. And Breathe. Somehow this pause and breath can be such a release. It also brings awareness to what is triggering me.
This helps me from having chronic stress in my body, which is so important because chronic pain IS a form of chronic stress on my nervous system. Over time this makes me more sensitive to pain and wears on my body by being stuck in the sympathetic nervous system’s flight, fight, freeze mode.
My case manager at the pain clinic, who is well versed in the brain part of chronic pain, is always emphasizing the important of awareness and the present moment. These allow us to take advantage of neuroplasticity and make new brain pathways. Chronic pain is a learned signal in our bodies that becomes linked to certain emotions and thoughts over time. Stress, or any of these emotions and thoughts can trigger a pain response. I’ve tried to become aware of my patterns, and break it up in my brain by developing new options and choices.
At the clinic there is a quote permanently up on the white board: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Victor Frankl
This quote encourages me to pause, instead of running on autopilot with the behavioral loop of my chronic pain. For instance, I may feel greater pain and automatically fear that if I keep walking I’m going to reinjure myself. I start to feel stress rising. I can Stop. Observe. And Breathe. In that pause I can recognize my thoughts, release the stress, and perhaps choose a different response, like, “It is highly unlikely that you’ll hurt yourself right now. Try to walk anyway and see how it feels.” Over time, this has become a more habitual response.