Whoa, I took what I thought would be a brief hiatus to focus on our move to Oregon earlier this year and—poof!—became a blogger-with-neglected-blog cliche. But, I’m here now on this crisp, clear morning and so are you, so…welcome, and thank you!
We’re here in the midst of holiday season. Gathering with loved ones, whether joyful or stressful (or a likely combination of both), can lead to an increase in pain. Inability to participate because of pain, as we all know, can be distressing and sometimes heartbreaking. So, it’s time more than ever to step up the self-care and attune to our bodies and our minds.
I’ve done an ultra-modified yoga-pilates-physical therapy fusion at home for years. My practice, born of necessity and desperation, is partly comprised of various techniques I’ve picked up over the years. The rest of it consists of a bunch of things my body just wants to do.
Lately, my body has been telling me to switch it up and—wouldn’t you know it?— I saw a flyer for an adaptive yoga class. My first class led to a flare-up, a painful “Told you so!” echoing from my limbs, reminding me to be more aware. Clearly, I would require adaptive adaptations, but with the thoughtful help of my two new teachers, I’d make it work.
When we got to a pose that was too painful to do in any form, one of the teachers suggested I imagine myself doing it. She explained to the class that we can benefit from simply preparing our bodies for the positions and visualizing them. So, I engaged my core, focused on my breath, and did the pose in mind only. In other words, I acted as if I was physically moving my body.
The suggested modification reminded me of the impact visualization has had in my life for so many years, especially since pain from CRPS and a complex spine condition progressed. Those of us in pain act "as if...” for the benefit of others all the time (behaving as if we’re not in pain, for example). So, think of visualizing as a way to project an “as if...” image solely for yourself. If your leg is cold and hurting, imagine it’s swaddled in a soft, warm blanket. If a venue (or a person) is overly stimulating, take slow breaths and gaze at the ocean in your mind.
When it comes to pain, we can use visualization to “trick” our brains into thinking something more pleasurable is happening with our bodies. That’s why my mobility limitations can’t stop me from getting the mental benefits of dancing to ABBA like I did pre-disability. Aside from being useful for relaxation, imagining is a great distraction, and vital in my personal pain management repertoire.
Also referred to as imagery, visualization is one of many mind-body practices. These are activities which make a positive connection between our thoughts or feelings and our body's physiology. The goal of a mind-body connection is similar to that of any healthy relationship; for each to have a desirable influence on the other.
One way to achieve this is to focus on our breathing. When we take slow, intentional belly breaths, we increase the amount of oxygen in our lungs and bloodstreams. This results in our hearts beating more slowly and with less effort. The body communicates to the brain, "Everything's fine, nothing here to worry about!” The brain then signals a decrease in the release of stress hormones, which lowers or eliminates anxiety.
With visualization, we start this process in our minds. A relaxing image, like floating on a raft, makes our brains tell our bodies to breathe more slowly, and the heart rate follows. As long as we maintain calm visions, our brains won't send signals to tense up and breathe shallowly (as we do when we're anxious). Our bodies will be tranquil, as though we're truly being rocked by gentle water.
Envision hugging somebody you love. (Go ahead, take a moment here.) Your brain tells your body you’re safe, then instructs the stress hormones to slow down. Your conscious mind is doing the thinking while your subconscious mind believes what you think and see. Both are at play here, so that hug is really powerful.
To further understand this, in 2004 Dr. Giorgio Ganis and colleagues assessed whether the brain processes visual imagery (what we imagine) and visual perception (what we see) in similar ways. Research participants performed visual tasks of each type. Using functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), researchers assessed brain activation for similarities and differences between the two activities.
They found that neural processing for imagery and perception mostly differed in the occipital (visual information) and temporal (meaning and memory) areas of the brain, but responded similarly in the frontal (personality and learning) and parietal (sensory information) regions. Overall, the study concluded that our brains function alike whether we imagine something or actually see it. Amazing, isn’t it?
The single most important resource we possess for living with pain is our mind. While our imagination doesn’t magically erase pain (wouldn’t that be great!), it can ease some of the suffering and help us cope.
Visualization is like a grown-up version of make-believe. We get to invite anything and anybody into our minds. We can be Dancing Queens! The best part? No matter what we’re confronted with, we can create some of our own reality by choosing how to respond.