Your Brain Shapes Your Pain
As I compose this, my washer is going full-steam-ahead with a vomit-covered, king-size comforter in it, my 8 year old lies on a well-protected couch (his bowl on the towel-covered ottoman), and Kipper -- a long ago forgotten, feel-good kid show -- streams on the TV.
My little guy is sick.
Standing vigil with him last night, I was reminded we can make our pain worse or we can make it better, and a lot of that power lies in our brains. Like many of us, he doesn't enjoy being sick. He tried to rest, but when his stomach started to rumble, he grew restless, rocking his legs back and forth with anxiety and anticipation. Not wanting to wash any more linens, I encouraged him to move to the bathroom, where he would pace back and forth in front of the toilet in his attempts to avoid the inevitable.
"I don't like to throw up," he said, tears sliding off his cheeks.
"I know." I gently rubbed his back. I wasn't sure how much of his pain was from his stomach, and how much was from his brain. Sure, he was coping, yet he was also masterfully avoiding his body's natural impulses to move through this illness. Fear -- he was scared.
"When you worry so much about being sick, it can make your body feel worse. I think if you can take deeper breaths and try to let your arms and legs be lazy and heavy, then you can really hear what your stomach is saying." We both sat on the edge of the bathtub as I mirrored the deeper breathing and lazy legs while continuing with my fingers on his back.
We repeated this ritual many times in the night, and a shift occurred: knowing he could calm parts of his body and mind led him to feel more secure in what was actually happening in his tummy. He was able to better feel the illness, as it would come and then go, and this helped him rest in-between.
See any similarities to labor here?
Really what this describes is the fear-tension-pain cycle. In my classes we demonstrate this with a very long piece of elastic tied in a knot -- like a very, very long piece (10 yards?). I offer it to three different participants, so when held, it makes a giant triangle in the middle of our classroom. I then assign each of the three to be either "fear," "tension," or "pain," and have them relax their arms so the elastic falls to the ground, and we read over a few situations. As one trigger point becomes activated, that person pulls back on his or her piece of the triangle, then the next trigger is activated, and we see the result when the third person has to hold his elastic tightly to prevent it slipping from his hands. As we get to the problem-solving part, that person relaxes his or her part of the triangle, until it is loose and dragging the floor again.
"Mary is laboring at home. During her contractions she leans over her dresser and her partner applies pressure to her lower back. She would say her pain level during contractions is a 3-4, and she feels she is coping well. Soon she reaches the point where it is time to go to the hospital. She and her partner gather their things and head to the car."
What's going on here? And how can we short-circuit the fear-tension-pain cycle? The biggest difference is, Mary's coping strategy has changed -- she is no longer upright and mobile, being comforted by her partner's hands. Now she is sitting, strapped into the car, and on her way to the hospital.
A change in the level of PAIN, brought TENSION to her body, and FEAR about the future. Mary's partner can help her through this verbally -- reminders to relax and release tension, seatbelt caused hindered mobility, labor not necessarily picking up but changing sensation from changing position, etc. Relaxing can reduce the TENSION, while knowing this information can speak to the FEAR, thus helping to change the intensity of the PAIN, interrupting the cycle.
Let's look at another situation (without the pictures -- as a side, I am currently reading Unfolding the Napkin, and I decided to follow the author's advice about processing visual information and creating my own pictures :)). Mary is now in the hospital. She is coping well by sitting on a birth ball and rocking through her contractions. She hears a scream down the hall and suddenly she has a FEAR response; consequently, she TENSES, and her PAIN increases. What can help here?
Address the FEAR with words. Remind the woman, just as she has a birth team taking care of her, the lady down the hall also has professionals aware of her situation. The screaming might not actually have anything to do with a level of pain or danger -- it may just be how that lady chooses to cope, maybe she is just a screamer? Hands-on touch can offer physical reminders to relieve TENSION in areas of her body, and her PAIN level can go back to where it was before her scare.
My little one is on the mend, the laundry is done, and I got a nap this afternoon. Watching him struggle was intense as a mom, just as it is when we are with laboring moms. It was an amazing tool to offer him, navigating through his own experience of the F-T-P cycle, by helping him recognize ways to make himself feel better in his body, by simply using his head.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)