Learning New Patterns
In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Judy Foreman, the author of A Nation in Pain, stated, “Chronic pain, by the way, isn’t just acute pain that doesn’t go away after a few months; it’s a transformation of the nervous system that can literally shrink the brain.”
When I was really hurting, comments like that increased my fear and pain and made my situation seem hopeless. Then I’d have to remind myself that, while it is true that prolonged pain can change the nervous system, these changes don’t have to be permanent. Evidence suggests that the structure of the nervous system can change, and this beautiful capability, which is called neuroplasticity, can help us heal. Starting in the early 1990s, evidence of neuroplasticity started to emerge that supported the notion that the nervous system could change and adapt with practice and experience.
When I was working with clients with neurological disorders, we often used the concept of neuroplasticity as support for our treatments. After an injury to the nervous system, many of my clients would often be able to move in only a few movement patterns. This pattern of neural and motor activation was habitual and compelling. If pictured like a flowing river, this movement pattern would be a fast current along steep banks, so it was the most likely response. During therapy, we would provide manual cues and support to help our patients with brain injury or stroke experience a different type of movement, and then we would set up practice activities that required them to use this new pattern. I saw many people with stroke or brain injury move in new ways during their treatment session, but it took lots of practice before this novelty became a habit. Using the river metaphor, we helped our patients create a tributary to the water’s flow, which at first was small but with more use could become wider and deeper.
These experiences gave me hope when I was dealing with chronic pain. I thought that if I could experience something different than pain and then continually repeat that experience over time, this way of being for the neuro-biological system might become stronger and eventually become my dominant way of being. I hoped that by activating different neural pathways that were calming and pain-free, the over-sensitive or prominent pain pathways would quiet down. Over the years, my body-mind learned to adopt this relaxed state for more of the time, not only in therapy and quiet moments but also in daily life and stressful situations. Using the river metaphor, I experienced that it was possible to create a new stream and to expand it into the main route.
Once a new neural pathway was developed, I could then choose how I wanted to travel. Like sitting in a little boat on a river, I could decide which stream I would float down. When I saw the same scenery in my life, my mind, or my body, it gave me a clue that I was travelling down my old familiar routes, and with this awareness I had the option to change course.