Healing Pain 101: Understanding Pain is the First Step

In a recent post about the Feldenkrais Method, I emphasized how this practice can help you tap into your creativity.

I also downplayed the idea that the Method “is good for aches and pains” because I was making a different point – that Feldenkrais can transform your life even if physical challenges are not your primary concern.

But I also added this:

Your creativity is your most potent tool for diminishing your aches and pains!

. . . So if you are recovering from surgery, suffering from exhaustion or depression, or feeling stuck in traumatic memories or current dysfunctional relationships, I still recommend that you try the Feldenkrais Method – because when you face those kinds of challenges, that’s when you’ll need your creativity the most!”

In this post, I’ll explain the connection between Feldenkrais, creativity and the challenge of physical pain.

The question of how emotional discomfort can be approached creatively through the Feldenkrais Method will be addressed in a future post.

(If pain is not your main concern, you’ll still want to keep reading, in order to find out how you can expand your creative capacities through a better understanding of pain!)

One of the fundamental principles of the Feldenkrais Method is that we move closer to our potential through the act of self-knowing.

And it’s not a single act.

When we’re after significant life transformation, it’s more realistic to understand that it’s going to be a journey.

Still, it helps to have a map.

By exploring our insides, we start to fill that map in. In terms of our physical experience, we need to get more familiar with our body’s structure and the mechanics of how it works.

This is a key component of what Feldenkrais call the “self-image” – if you like, our basic blueprint of self that we feed to the operating system that guides everything we do in life.

What’s quite fascinating – and also scientifically proven – is that the image we have of ourselves also largely shapes what we feel.

That includes our experience of pain.

And, as it turns out, pain doesn’t actually work the way most of us think it does.

I recently came across a terrific video of pain expert Lorimer Moseley explaining how pain actually functions. He makes the significant point that this understanding is the first and key step in healing chronic pain.

His presentation also makes clear why the Feldenkrais Method can be so effective where other approaches have failed.

That video is linked at the bottom of this post, and it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time, but I will go over the main points briefly.

Mosley begins with a message of validation for anyone who might have ever been told by a doctor that “there’s nothing wrong with you” even while experiencing pain.

“Pain is always real, no matter what is causing it.”

And if the doctor sees nothing on your x-ray or has no explanation why you should be feeling what you feel, there is a reason for that too.

It’s rather startling, but it has been scientifically proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that pain is not a measurement of damage to your internal tissues.

“You can have brutal pain without having a brutal injury,” says Moseley.

Actually, pain is a signal from our body that is intended to alert us to potential dangers and get us to stop something that we are doing before it’s too late.

It’s about protecting those tissues.

And since protection – not tissue damage – is the key factor in your pain, this is the key thing you need to understand in order to heal your pain.

What’s wonderful is that once you have digested that, many doors open.  Now you can begin to take effective action to improve your life.

That’s why Moseley says that rather than asking an expert to “fix” your pain, you are much better off when you ask for help to understand your condition and the journey that will be involved in “retraining your pain system.”

Why retraining?

Because when we don’t understand how our pain works and we have been in pain for a long time, our pain signals have taken on a life of their own that distorts our biology and our reality.

You might wonder . . .

  • Why is it that some research subjects experience greater pain from a stimulus when it is associated with a particular color?
  • Why do violinists experience a pain stimulus differently with their left hand than their right?
  • How could a monstrous injury, such as the amputation of a limb, be experienced as essentially painless?

Moseley recounts several fascinating studies and anecdotes that demonstrate that pain signals are related to cues that tell us whether or not we are in danger.

“Anything that suggests you need protecting, takes pain up. Anything that suggests you don’t, takes pain down,” he says.

And how we understand what does or doesn’t suggest danger is highly individual and largely based on previous experience.

“You learn pain. . . It’s an adaptation within your nervous system.” Or, as Moshe Feldenkrais put it, several decades ago: “the pain is in the brain.”

The way we learn pain affects what Moseley calls the “pain buffer.”

Simply put, pain precedes injury – it’s a warning signal of the possibility of injury.

What this means is that there is a certain experience of pain, which although unpleasant, is essentially harmless to the tissue. But it gives us a signal: stop what you’re doing!

However, when we have chronic pain, the size of this buffer can grow, so that we feel pain not just a little before injury could happen – but way before.

This situation is far from harmless because now the slightest movement or stimulus triggers a pain that paralyzes us, interrupts our ability to think, creates emotional trauma . . . and on and on.

Life is completely interrupted.

Moseley explains that this very real experience of pain is happening not because of internal damage, but because “your nervous system and your immune system has learnt how to be very efficient at producing pain. So you get pain when you’re not anywhere near being in danger.”

So the real challenge of anyone with chronic pain is to figure out “why is my brain protecting and how can I reduce the size of my buffer?”

Retraining the nervous system is possible, Moseley says, and “movement is king” because it is tied to how we learn.

Here’s where the creative approach of the Feldenkrais Method really shines.

Explaining how he works with patients with the most severe pain, Moseley sounds like a Feldenkrais practitioner. The key, he says, is “finding the line that you can go to without things flaring up, without things getting worse, and then slowly progressing.”

He adds, “even imagining movement is helpful.”

If you have never tried Awareness Through Movement (the group format of the Feldenkrais Method), a brief explanation is in order.

If you come to one of these classes, you will explore movement not by straining at your limits, but rather by discovering all the rich subtleties of what can take place within the range of their comfort.

Sometimes this includes doing imaginary movements, another approach that Moseley advocates.

The teacher not only suggests how to move your body, but also helps to guide your attention. You are always being led towards efficient movement patterns, but there is enough space for you to make your own discoveries, conduct your own experiments, and adjust for the highly individual situation of your unique body.

You are in the driver’s seat for your healing.

A similar thing happens in an individual hands-on Functional Integration session.

One small example of how this gentle and creative approach can produce changes without setting off the too-early warning systems of chronic pain is something that happened with one of my clients the other day.

This woman, who had experienced rheumatoid arthritis for years, was having trouble turning her head from side to side comfortably. This movement dramatically improved when I simply asked her one simple question.

“Did you notice that when you do that the back of your head moves in the opposite direction than your nose?”

Suddenly, she found a new image of what she was doing which helped her release a place where she was unnecessarily contracting to protect against imaginary dangers. She immediately found more freedom in her neck.

This one small example contains within it a key the overall Feldenkrais approach.

We don’t look at our current limitations as walls to try to break through with force. Rather, by looking at what is possible here and now – and using our creativity to discover new possibilities – we find new freedoms without setting off the alarm bells.

When you discover that you don’t have to rely solely on medication or the advice of experts to ease your physical pain, a new horizon opens up in front of you.

When you begin to “re-engage with a new sense of what’s possible,” in Moseley’s words, suddenly you are author of your own story again.

Every situation is different, but if you’re in pain right now, you don’t have to assume it’s a life sentence.

It’s not impossible to take your life back from your pain.

And once you’re on that path, there is no reason to stop improving even after the pain is gone!

If you’d like to find out what can happen when you begin to retrain your system based on this new and emerging understanding of pain, a good place to start would be with your local Feldenkrais practitioner.

If you’re ready to begin, let’s talk!




How can understanding pain help you express yourself more creatively?

What if you understand pain well enough to dance with it?!

For some inspiration along those lines, check out my good friend Juliana Ponguta and her collaborator Jhonatan González in this beautiful dance, Aspero.

Juliana and I co-founded the ¡DC Movement Research! group, a space for child-like exploration of creative movement. If you’re in town, and would like to join us, please visit us on Facebook!





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