Welcome to the
Living Proof Blog
Living Proof is inviting a series of guest bloggers to share some of their favourite thoughts and ideas on neuroplastic conditions, speaking from their own experience, either as people who have recovered, or as healthcare professionals using this approach to successfully treat their patients.
The Power of Leaning into Sensations
Our February blog comes from Charli, one of our Ambassadors and the 'star' of our first film on chronic pain, released in 2021.
As you may have experienced by now, fear and attention to symptoms can often be the fuel to the fire. Much of recovery from neuroplastic pain involves paying LESS attention to your symptoms, or at least not worrying about them so much. This allows the brain to stop freaking out and helps to calm the nervous system.
However, sometimes leaning into sensations and paying close attention to them can be the secret to unlocking your recovery. A growing body of research has shown that somatic tracking, as part of pain reprocessing therapy (PRT), the treatment approach developed by Alan Gordon, is beneficial in reducing chronic symptoms. I myself used this during my recovery and it brought me huge breakthrough moments.
What is somatic tracking?
Somatic tracking is a mindfulness-based practice that involves paying close attention to bodily sensations and using them as a guide for self-awareness. Unlike conventional pain management techniques that aim to distract from discomfort, somatic tracking encourages individuals to lean into sensations, exploring them with curiosity and without judgement. The aim is to observe these sensations through a lens of safety.
Leaning into pain: A counter-intuitive approach
At first glance the idea of leaning into pain might seem counter-intuitive. However, research suggests that somatic tracking can reshape the way we perceive and respond to chronic pain. Alan Gordon has successfully used this in his practice and treatment for hundreds of patients. By leaning into sensations we teach our brains that these are not really dangerous. As you allow yourself to explore sensations without judgement, the nervous system quite literally turns down the volume and calms down.
Image credit: Alan Gordon, LCSW
The science behind somatic tracking and PRT
A 2021 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that participants who engaged in Pain Reprocessing Therapy, (which included somatic tracking alongside cognitive and exposure-based approaches) experienced significant reductions in pain intensity and improved overall well-being compared to placebo and to those who underwent usual care, with gains largely maintained after 12 months.
I learnt the techniques of somatic tracking near the start of my pain recovery journey and used them throughout to support my recovery from not only my hip and back pain, but also chronic jaw pain and even IBS.
How to start somatic tracking
To try out somatic tracking doesn't require specialised training; anyone can begin with simple mindfulness exercises. Start by finding a quiet space, close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breath. Gradually, shift your focus to a part of your body, notice the sensations in that part of your body. If discomfort arises, resist the urge to pull away; instead breathe into the sensation and observe how it evolves.
Image credit: Alan Gordon, LCSW
I like to give the sensations an image with detailed characteristics. What shape is it? Does it have a colour? What texture is the edges? What size is this shape? Is it moving? Once you have a clear picture in your mind of the sensation, simple observe it. Remember you are not trying to change it, you are just observing and watching what it does. Remind yourself you are safe and you aren’t doing anything harmful to your body right now. As you do this you may notice the characteristics of the image begin to change. If they don’t, that’s ok. Perhaps you can see if you can use your brain to change the image of this object. Do you want to make it smaller? Wider? Change its movement pattern perhaps?
Resources for further exploration
If you would like to delve deeper into somatic tracking and its potential benefits there are several reputable resources available. Alan Gordon demonstrates somatic tracking on Youtube and also speaks on the topic on the Curable podcast. There are many more resources out there, use the words ‘somatic tracking’ and ‘pain reprocessing’. Additionally, mindfulness meditation apps and online platforms often feature guided somatic tracking exercises.
Five Exercises for Mindful Running
This month's guest blog comes from Living Proof Ambassador and amateur triathlete Dan Hindsley, and is aimed at people adopting a neuroplastic approach to recovery from chronic pain and illness. You can read more of Dan's articles on his Medium page.
As you begin to recognise the link between thoughts, emotions and physical reactions and your symptoms are subsiding - the time may come where you want to re-introduce activities that have long been avoided, such as running!
If you have been cleared to undertake general exercise by a medical professional, perhaps you could try these 5 mindfulness exercises that I introduced when returning to running following a 15-year break due to chronic lower back pain.
The thought of running used to fill me with fear and anxiety, however, practices such as these really helped to develop a mind-body awareness that I believe was an essential part of my recovery.
Dan completing his first triathlon in 2019, post-recovery from 15 years of debilitating back pain.
In my experience, these mindfulness exercises are ideally suited to gentle runs, where the objective is to keep your heart rate low and to run with as little effort as possible.
Noticing the quality of your breath
As you run, bring the attention to the breath and notice its quality. Are you breathing through the nose or the mouth? Is the breath short and sharp or long and smooth? Can you gradually slow the outbreath as you run? Notice any thoughts or feelings that arise without judgement and then bring your attention back to the breath.
Noticing your body alignment
As you run, experiment with your body alignment. See how it feels to lean your upper body forwards for a few steps, and then backwards for a few steps. See how it feels to raise your right shoulder and then the left. Hold your arms higher and then lower. After each little experiment return to a neutral position. Try to feel how these changes impact your overall running posture. Notice any thoughts or feelings that arise without judgement and then bring your attention back to the breath.
Noticing your connection with the ground
As you run, notice how your feet connect to the ground. Notice if you land on your front foot, midfoot or heel. Notice how far apart your footsteps are and then experiment with making your stride shorter and longer, wider and narrower. Do you push away from the ground with equal force on both sides? Can you run with more efficiency and less effort? Notice any thoughts or feelings that arise without judgement and then bring your attention back to the breath.
As you run, slowly use your awareness to scan from head to toe and notice if there is any tension in the body. If there is tension in the body, try and outline it and notice its shape. What colour would you give this area of tension? Can you change its colour? Can you change its size and shape? Allow the tension to be there and smile. Then practice shifting your awareness to parts of the body that are free from tension, such as your hands, face, scalp or feet. Notice any thoughts or feelings that arise without judgement and then bring your attention back to the breath.
Noticing your environment
As you run, notice what you can see, hear and smell. Notice the space between sounds. Can you take your awareness to the horizon? Can you feel the air on your skin? Can you become aware of the air surrounding your body? Can you zoom out and picture yourself running on this tiny rock spinning in space? Notice any thoughts or feelings that arise without judgement and then bring your attention back to the breath.
Finally, as you cool down from your run and return to a walk, be grateful for whatever movement your body has allowed and smile!
Harmful Myths about Neuroplastic Disorders (formerly known as Psychosomatic Symptoms)
Our inaugural blog post comes from one of Living Proof's medical advisors, Dr Dave Clarke MD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Gastroenterology Emeritus & President of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association in the US.
There are many myths and misconceptions about neuroplastic pain or illness that are believed not only by the public but by most health care professionals, too. Recent studies have revealed the truth about these which supports a new and far more effective approach to this condition.
Myth: Psychosomatic symptoms are “all in your head” and are not real.
Truth: Pain or illness not caused by disease or injury are generated by changes in nerve circuits in the brain and are just as real as any other form of illness. For this reason, the new term for this condition is neuroplastic pain (or illness). This term means that nerve circuits are capable of change caused by a blend of psychology and physiology. Neuroplastic pain can happen to anyone. (Psychophysiologic Disorders (PPD), mindbody syndrome, or Tension Myoneural Syndrome (TMS) are other terms that you will see for this condition.)
Myth: Neuroplastic symptoms have no definite cause.
Truth: Neuroplastic pain or illness is caused by past or present psychosocial stress that often is not fully recognised by the patient. This stress can be diagnosed as successfully as any other form of illness.
Myth: Neuroplastic pain or illness does not respond well to treatment so the best that can be hoped for is living with the condition.
Truth: The past or present psychosocial stress that causes neuroplastic pain or illness can be treated at least as successfully as other forms of illness.
Myth: Neuroplastic pain or illness is milder than other forms of illness.
Truth: Neuroplastic pain or illness can be just as severe as any other form of illness. Neuroplastic Pain can lead to hospitalisation, can persist for decades, and can cause dozens of symptoms simultaneously.
Myth: People with neuroplastic pain are psychologically weak or mentally ill and cannot manage normal levels of stress.
Truth: People with neuroplastic pain are psychologically strong but are coping with much higher levels of stress than they recognise. Once the stresses are uncovered and treated, the many strengths of these patients become clear.
Myth: Either you have a disease or injury, or you have neuroplastic pain.
Truth: Neuroplastic pain can contribute to pain or illness that is caused by disease or injury. Both can be present simultaneously. The best way to determine if there is a contribution to symptoms from the brain is to identify and treat past or present psychosocial stresses and observe the response. Many who have done this have been pleasantly surprised by their improvement.
Myth: Focusing on psychosocial stress is a distraction that can hinder recovery from disease or injury.
Truth: There is no contradiction and no harm from working on stress and on possible disease or injury at the same time. If significant psychosocial stresses are present, they deserve attention for their own sake.
Myth: Neuroplastic pain is uncommon compared to most other diseases.
Truth: Neuroplastic pain is very common and responsible for symptoms in about 20% of adults and 40% of people who see a primary care physician. Neuroplastic pain is nearly twice as prevalent as diabetes.
To summarise: Disease Or Injury Are Not The Only Causes Of Pain Or Illness.
The brain can generate real symptoms when high levels of stress are not fully recognised. This occurs in many people with strong, healthy minds, affecting one in five adults and two in five primary care patients.
How does the brain do this? Research shows changes in the nerve pathways in the brain (neuroplasticity). These occur in people with stress, trauma, and repressed emotions that often are linked to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Fortunately, new research shows Pain Relief Psychology achieves far better relief of pain and illness than older approaches.