The understanding of NEUROPLASTICITY has become a valuable tool in working with both physical and mental health.
NEUROPLASTICITY is the process where the brain alters its structure and function as an adaptation to experience. The implications of this are huge. One implication is that the things that people do to ‘manage’ their problem are also ‘experiences’ so the brain changes and adapts to management techniques.
Another way to think about it, is that the brain of someone managing their illness well is very different from someone who is actually well.
Many people think that they can ‘manage’ their way to full health. But they are different processes.
A really great example of this is described in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Stroke rehabilitation specialist, Dr Taub realised that when someone lost movement of one arm, they naturally compensated and learnt how to function with the working arm. This however created changes in the brain. The parts in the brain involved in moving the stroke effected arm were not being used so disappeared as the brain’s neurology works on a ‘use it or lose it policy’. Meanwhile the parts of the brain associated with the still working arm increased in area. The person was in essence ‘managing’ their stroke by becoming really good at being a one armed person and the brain changed as a result of this.
This is the Neurobiology of Compensation.
Dr Taub therefore developed a novel stroke rehab technique called ‘Constraint induced therapy’. When someone loses the use of one arm, using their working arm makes sense but this has nothing to do with full recovery and can get in the way of full recovery. You are just getting good at becoming a one armed person. So ‘Constraint induced therapy’ for strokes now involves tying down the working arm. Any compensation activity (or management technique) changes the brain away from the where you want to be. Tying down the working arm forces people to focus on the aim of retrain the stroke affected arm.
This technique is based on our understanding that we can retrain the brain – even if there is damage. (Read Brain that Changes itself)
What we do to ‘get by’ might get in the way of ‘getting better’ – The broader context
Think of someone with agoraphobia (fear of panic attacks). You can manage that well by staying inside the house. Great. Problem solved? No. Just well managed. This management technique is an experience that changes the wiring of your brain. Some areas that are not being used weaken (socializing, spacial awareness of the city, procedural memory of public transport, reduction of stress because you are ‘safe’). You get good at staying inside but you haven’t beaten the anxiety just managed it well. With good management comes changes in the body and the brain but you are stuck inside.
So is the answer just going outside and pushing through the discomfort? Interesting – forcing yourself to go outside while you feel terrible also is an experience that changes your brain. The parts of your brain associated with detecting danger and threats get well developed, body awareness of sensations like a racing heart develops and the brain associates certain places with horrible feeling and stress hormones. The brains links outside with fear. Just pushing through doesn’t do it. So people often move back into the more bearable management technique of avoidance. You are not getting better just better at managing it.
Avoidance or pushing through are not about getting better and over time these techniques change the brain. Paradoxically good management can become an obstacle to full health. People often assume the only two options with Chronic pain and fatigue conditions are also to either “push through” and pay for it or avoid the things that set them off. But if you think of the agoraphobia example, neither of these techniques are addressing the issue and are experiences that alter brain structure and function.
When people come to me they tend to have developed a mixture of techniques between pushing through and avoiding what sets them off.
The Lightning Process is suggesting an alternative option – to actively retrain your brain and body to respond more appropriately.
You do have to be committed and focused but the brain and body are highly adaptable. The brain will adapt and get good at whatever you are doing.
So the question is – Are you getting good at managing the problem or are you actually solving it?
Stress hormones can keep us safe. But Chronic Stress hormones can make us sick.
A nice overview of how chronic stress changes our body. The problem is not stress it is CHRONIC stress.
Our body starts changing instantly with stress. We are designed to respond to a threat with the Physical Emergency Stress response.
But long lingering periods of running a Stress Response begins to negatively influence our health.
This is one of the things we focus on with the Lightning Process – teaching people how to spot and turn off this Physical Emergency Response. There is more to the Lightning Process than just learning to relax but its a powerful start to be able to consciously take charge of the moment and calm the body.
“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 Frankle
What is fatigue?
It’s worth pondering if you are suffering from chronic fatigue that rest and sleep USE energy. Lying still uses energy. Sleeping uses less but only a fraction less. It’s still ‘draining your energy resources’. It’s interesting to ponder that healthy people wake up each morning having used energy to sleep but feel more ‘energised’.
There is a difference between the energy in our body and how ‘energetic’ or fatigued we feel. Fatigue is not running out of energy.
You won’t rest your way out of chronic pain or fatigue.
Challenging the way we think about chronic pain and chronic fatigue can be an important first step to recovery.
The video below is a useful way to think about just how the brain processes all the information that comes its way.
With the brain located inside our skull it relies on our nerves to send it important information. This includes information about the world around us and the working of our body. All of this information is sent along nerves / spinal cord to the brain but not all of it is important.
This information goes through a filtering process so only vital information gets to the brain. But what determines ‘vital’?
Any perceived dangers will take priority. We are alert to ‘threats’. If we incorrectly think a safe thing is dangerous this will alter how our brain works and how the body responds.
What would it be like to train your brain about what is important and what is not. What to pay attention to and what to ignore.
While this video perhaps focuses on one important element – focus – our Reticular Activating System is influenced by many things including past experience, trauma, beliefs, emotions, words we and other use, memories, conversations and who we hang around.
This Reticular Activating System is integral to our awareness of the world, our sense of self and how we respond to things AND it can easily be trained.
Think about how this might be useful is understanding elements of anxiety conditions, depression, self-esteem as well as pain and fatigue conditions.
There is neuroscience behind the saying
“WHERE ATTENTION GOES ENEGY FLOWS”
A recent article in UK press about East Enders star Martine McCutcheon and her Lightning Process success.
I sent out this poem recently to my Lightning Process Graduates and so many replied to say how much they related to it.
The process of getting out of auto-pilot and retraining our brain / body to respond differently is not always smooth. It’s a journey that this poem captures well.
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
By Portia Nelson
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
MRI RESULTS FOR BACK PAIN – SHOCKING FINDINGS
This post is all about PAIN. It relates to you if, and only if, you have experienced pain before. So I guess that means you!
What follows might challenge you. Modern pain science is showing us that most of what we used to think about pain was wrong.
Look closely at the picture below.
Let’s see what ‘having a body like theirs’ actually means. Let’s use technology to look inside with an MRI, X-Ray, CAT scan. etc
What we find in these healthy bodies may challenge your thinking of ‘normal’ AND ‘healthy’ and is at the heart of the revolution in modern pain science and central to my work.
If these happy, healthy, fit and strong people were to go and have their spine scanned the MAJORITY would have abnormal structural issues with their spine. Remember these are fit healthy PAIN FREE people.
So abnormal is normal.
Assuming an average age of 40 years old then 68 % will show degeneration of the vertabrae in their back. HALF will have physical fleshy bulges in their discs, a THIRD will have a spinal disc protrusion, a FIFTH will have annular fissures, one in ten will have facet degeneration and every 20th runner will have spondylolisthesis. On top of this, the majority will have arthritic changes in the bones and joints ………..AND they are fit and healthy people who are NOT experiencing back pain.
(See graph below to find what you would expect to find inside a healthy person of your age).
Unless you are up to date with modern pain theory those finding should challenge you.
How can someone have a visibly ‘broken’ bit but no pain. Aren’t these things a problem? Is it even safe to be running with these things going on in the spine? I’m sure you’ve heard of people having slipped, bulging, herniated discs and how much they hurt. You may have heard health practitioners talk about these things as the cause of back pain. You might even have been told that YOU have one of these broken bits and you may have had a operation or procedure to ‘fix’ these broken bits.
But these structural issues are found COMMONLY in most healthy PAIN FREE people. It’s worth having that concept sink in a little. Why aren’t THEY experiencing pain? Why is there no pain?
The old model of pain that we all grew up with struggles with explaining this. Modern pain science explains it well but what I am about to say will probably challenge you. You may feel yourself ‘dig in’ and go into battle for the old model of pain. (“Yeah but…….” is a common response). But modern pain science is really clear on this.
These things do not cause pain. Infact nothing in the body can cause pain.
Modern pain theory requires us to put aside everything we have learnt about pain. The old bio-mechanical model saw pain as a ‘thing’ occurring in the body when things are broken. Modern pain science now says pain is an experience not a thing and it is generated in the brain. ALL PAIN. IN THE BRAIN. ALL THE TIME. So that means your pain too.
The only thing the body can produce is a message (technically called a ‘nociceptive message’) to alert the brain that there is something that could be potentially dangerous. But that is not pain. You can have these nociceptive messages with absolutely no pain at all.
So back to the back. Aren’t those things that have show up in the MRI’s a danger that warrants our attention. Not necessarily and mostly not. Those abnormalities are normal remember. Our spines are robust and living flexible structures. Authors of ‘Explain Pain’, David Butler and Lorimer Mosely call these abnormalities the ‘kisses of time’ or internal wrinkles. We all have them. From the age of 10 you will start to see spinal degeneration – it’s called aging. It doesn’t mean a threat.
So why do some brain’s see an abnormality (like a bulging disc) as a threat and generate pain while in others peoples brain’s, like our running friends in the picture, ignore these normal abnormalities?
There is no single answer to this because …. it’s your brain. We know the assessment of threat process that generates pain is influenced by many things such as stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and movement, past traumas and emotional state. One of the largest study of back pain showed that mood was a better predictor of a back pain incident than anything else.
Another significant thing which influences whether your brain determines this normal abnormality as a threat is really important – the information your brain receives by way of ‘diagnosis’. The very act of getting a scan and seeing or being told that you have a ‘broken bit’ influences brain function. A scan ‘just to be on the safe side’ actually can ironically not be that ‘safe’ after all. Your risk of ongoing back pain issues increases relative to how quickly you get a scan done. The sooner the scan (or belief about threat) the larger the chance of ongoing back pain.
So the duration of a back pain experience, that may have been triggered by stress, can then be prolonged by the belief that it is ’caused’ by a bulging disc.
A new initiative being taught to Australian doctors (The Choose Wisely programme) now encourages NOT to send back pain clients to get scans done except under specific circumstances and instead the advice is to provide re-assurance. The problem is that in a 10 minute GP visit it is not possible to teach people modern pain theory, assess what is going on in this person’s life (now and past) to work out why the pain and why NOW then give ‘non-drug’ tools to address the actual issue.
So what to do? We know drugs are not effective for chronic back pain. Spinal surgeries (spinal fusion or laminectomy) are some of the most performed operations in the states yet the incidences of back pain is INCREASING.
The solution lies in a better understanding of pain. The back’s not broken. The old pain model was broken.
So to beat chronic pain it is important to understand what pain IS and what pain is NOT.
If you would like to learn more about chronic pain (back pain, migraine, osteo-arthitis pain, pelvic pain, fibromyalgia pain) this simple 5 minute video is a nice introduction to modern pain science and great explanation of why the Lightning Process takes such a broad multi-pronged approach to retraining the brain out of pain.
If you would like to learn more about the concepts behind the Lightning Process and pain you can download the Lightning Process and Pain Audio Book. HERE
Or just email me for a phone consultation.