I was driving down the highway one night when something caught my eye. It was up ahead off to the right, a shadowy thing that was moving in a way that wasn’t correct for any of the things that would be expected to be along the side of the highway. Construction trucks or workers, signs, piles of dirt, this shadowy thing wasn’t any of those things. It wasn’t moving right for it to be any of them…
I kept glancing over to it and then back to the road, beyond confused about what I was seeing. What was this?
The way your brain organizes what you see is what tells you the story you believe about what’s in front of you.
And this is incredibly similar to what your brain does with symptoms or signals in your body.
You’ve probably seen images like this before…
Most of the letters are scrambled, and yet, you can still read it easily. While researchers aren’t totally certain why we can read jumbled words and still know how organize them correctly as if they weren’t, there is one consistently strong theory….context matters.
“We use context to pre-activate the areas of our brains that correspond to what we expect next”, Marta Kutas explained. Marta is a Professor and Chair of cognitive science and an adjunct professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego. She also directs the Center for Research in Language at UCSD.
For example, brain scans reveal that if we hear a sound that leads us to strongly suspect another sound is on the way, the brain acts as if we’re already hearing the second sound. Similarly, if we see a certain collection of letters or words, our brains jump to conclusions about what comes next. “We use context to help us perceive,” Kutas said.
So when you see something shadowy and moving in a way you’re not used to along the side of the highway, as I did, your brain will try to determine what it is, in part, based on the context you have.
It’s not only external context like “what are things that would normally be on the side of the road?”, but internal context as well…if I’ve had previous experiences seeing Bigfoot on the side of the highway, or was told by my parents that only ax murderers stand alongside the highway at night, I’ll use that in my contextual reasoning, too.
When you feel pain, aches, discomfort, tension, the same contextual reasoning is happening in your brain and body. Pain is a necessary conversation tool for our bodies (just imagine if we never felt pain when touching a hot stove with our bare hands, we’d have no skin left on our hands and die from infection), but when the conversation is getting muddled from body to brain and back again, it’s worth spending time addressing it.
Learning how to reorganize what you’re seeing, experiencing, and believing – essentially, cleaning up the conversation so it’s more clear – opens one of the crucial doors to feeling and moving your best.
You can do all the workouts in the world, but if you continue to identify and organize signals in your body in a manner that suggests to your brain that you should create pain signals, you’re going to struggle to find pain-free movement.
The Symptoms In Your Body
The story your brain and body tell about the symptoms or pain you’re experiencing are created similarly to how your brain works to determine what it is that you’re seeing on the roadside that dark night on the highway. Context is a major factor for how your brain organizes the signals it is receiving.
That context comes from information that is always flowing between the brain and the body. Information going to and from the brain includes –
proprioception (the organization of your body moving through space)
interoception (the sensations inside your body…are you hungry, how fast is your heart beating, do you need to urinate, etc)
exteroception (sensations outside of your body that you can feel, like temperature change or smells)
And an often overlooked one…cognition (beliefs, perception, expectation, etc.)
As you can see, mechanical change to the tissues, bones, or joints of your body (like tissue sprains or tears, or fractures to a bone) are only one of several things that influence the story your brain creates about what’s happening in your body and whether it should feel pain or not.
This is why it’s very helpful to adopt the mentality that every painful/frustrating/achy thing you experience in your body is not a setback, it’s a signal.
A setback leaves you on the defensive, whereas a signal hands you information so you can make a more informed decision moving forward.
You Can Change The Story Being Told
On that dark highway I knew I was seeing something on the side of the road, but I was utterly baffled at what the shadowy moving thing was. Until I got closer and saw that it was an abnormally tall sign with two flags stuck into the top, waving in the breeze…
All of a sudden my brain reorganized what it was seeing with the new context that it had and I saw it completely differently. I understood what I was seeing, and it completely changed my comprehension and my state of being.
The signals, responses, and stories, being told in your mind and body can be reorganized, and it can completely change the experience of those sensations and symptoms.
Here’s one example of how different perception about the same physical thing influenced two very different outcomes:
In a study where participants were interviewed about their stress levels, those who perceived that ‘high stress’ was a bad thing for their health were twice as likely to have heart attacks than people who did not believe that. This was independent of their actual stress levels.
What the people perceived and believed seemed to influence what physical manifestations occurred in their bodies.
Here’s another example, this time showing how different physiological effects occur depending on what type of brain focus is being used by an individual:
When in narrow focus attention, your system is more primed to tense its muscles, you are more sensitive to pain, you increase the frequency of brain waves [lower brain waves are used for sleeping, meditation and restoration – higher brain waves are for processing and staying alert, also correlated with anxiety], and if you are already feeling pain, it takes up a much larger percentage of your total available focus.
When in diffuse focus attention, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) starts to quiet and your parasympathetic functions start to engage (rest and digestion), you increase blood flow to muscles, and your muscles are less likely to hold hypertonicity.
By tapping into a different form of focus in the brain, the experience in the body is vastly different.
One of my major themes I teach on is that of signal/response. You can dive in head first on the theme in my book, and the essence is this: every signal (or lack thereof) elicits a response, nothing happens in your body because your body hates you or is defective.
You may have experienced situations in the past that led your brain and body to organize a response that is no longer ideal or necessary for you. Personally, because I have experienced PTSD-level stress, my old response to someone jokingly frightening me by shouting “boo!” when I walked into a room was to punch that person in the face as fast as possible. Not the correct reaction for a “joking around” situation, but entirely the correct reaction for a system that can’t discern between the various kinds of sudden system stimulus.
So how do you re-teach your system to be discerning? That is an incredibly complex process, but here are three non-negotiables for every coaching client (and myself) whom I work with on healing pain or injuries and getting back to powerful, pain-free, movement:
Training your nervous system to have better, more directed, neural control is useful.
Having a mindfulness practice is another useful tool.
Learning to use isometrics to calm and retrain the system (giving a nod to the gate control theory) is yet another useful tool.
While the story of how pain happens and why is an incredibly complex one…the sensations, symptoms, and stories you’re experiencing are not rigidly set. And realizing you have the power to change them is one of the most empowering things in the world.