Take a look at this image. The Autonomic Nervous System is responsible for managing our breathing, heart rate, and other basic survival processes. This system is not in our conscious control. There are two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic branch initiates a fight or flight response. The opposite is the Parasympathetic branch: calming, relaxing, restorative. Both Sympathetic and Parasympathetic are phases of the Autonomic Nervous System. Remember, the Autonomic Nervous System is not in our conscious control.
Stick with me here. When signals from injury or previous injury are interpreted by our brain and our nervous system as painful enough, the Sympathetic branch of the nervous system (the fight or flight response) kicks in. It is an evolutionary response that is meant to be protective. It leads to physiological changes: muscle tension, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, shallow and rapid breathing, sweating, dry mouth, slowed immune response, inhibited digestion. All this to give us the strength to either fight or run away. It is a stress response.
This response could save our life in moments of real and imminent danger. But we want to stay out of this branch of the Autonomic Nervous System during the times we don't need it, which for many of us makes up the majority of our time. We don't want to 'hang out' here. The question you should be asking at this point is: but how can I help it, since it's not under my conscious control?
GREAT QUESTION! Enter the Somatic Nervous System. The Somatic Nervous System is within our conscious control. It makes possible our body movements as well as how (not whether) we breathe. That means that through the conscious manipulation of breath we can cue into the Parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System and induce a relaxation response. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the Parasympathetic nerves, which has a calming effect on the entire body. This is where we want to 'hang out'. Shallow, chest breathing cues us right into the Sympathetic system - a tensing, fight or flight type breathing.
1. Ask yourself "how do I breathe?"
2. Is the way that you breathe cueing you into the Sympathetic (fight/flight, tension, stress) system or the Parasympathetic (relaxing, calming) system?
Remember, mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment without judgment or the intention to change anything. This practice is actually a way of living, a way of being. We often go about our lives without living in the present moment. Either we are thinking about the past or worrying about the future.
Through the practice of being present in the moment comes a quieting of the mind and calming of the body. And it offers us space to choose what our mind focuses on. When we have this choice, we can choose to focus on the things that feel better.
When we stay in the "doing" mode for too long and live life on "automatic pilot" two things can occur:
1. Negative emotions and reactions can be triggered
2. It can jumpstart habitual coping patterns, such as mindless eating or biting our nails
In the context of pain, we recognize signals being sent up to our brain from a certain part of the body and then our minds (depending on our neuromatrix) add meaning and assumption in interpreting these signals. If we don't know about our bodies and what is going on, the danger flags rise and our pain 'volume dial' gets turned way up.
I hope I've convinced you to at least consider Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. If you're ready to give it a try, please first read the blog about the Mind's Error Detection System. And keep in mind that when you're first practicing mindfulness, it's normal for the mind to distract you, making you wonder if you're doing it right and telling you how hard it is to "not thinking about anything". It'll feel like a dance between the "doing" and the "being" mode. This is ok. Expect it. And it will get better. The more you practice, the more your mind will be quite and peaceful during this time.
There are two different approaches to mindfulness you may find helpful:
- An active way: "Google" search for Mindful Eating Script and have a partner read it out loud while you enjoy mindful eating
- A Meditative way: Using sensory awareness and using the breath as the main anchor to the present moment.
Guided Meditation has been my method of choice because the "work" is done for you as you listen to the audio voice that is leading you into a peaceful place. Here's a 3-Minute Breathing Space MP3 that only costs .99, give it a try. And notice how your body feels after only three minutes of focusing on the breath. Purchase the whole album from our content provider, Alexandra Milspaw, PhD, LPG if you find this method works well for you!
Mindfulness techniques are particularly helpful in the management of chronic pelvic pain because it can help us become aware of the specific triggers that are being set off in that moment. The more we learn about our bodies and gain awareness of our organs, muscles, and nerves, the more we can decipher where the pain is coming from and consequently, what coping mechanisms to use.
In other words, the more our brain understands where the pain is coming from, the less scary or threatening those signals are perceived and the more control we can have over managing how we respond to those signals. Mindfulness practice is ideal for cultivating greater awareness of the unity of mind and body, as well as of the ways unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can undermine our overall health.
Need help getting started? You're not alone! Mindful living doesn't come naturally in a society that trains us to race around. Have you ever tried just sitting still for a moment? You'll start to hear the judgment that you "should" be doing something. More to come next time.
Stephanie Yeager: Passionate about spreading the word of hope and healing for those like her, influencing a paradigm shift in the medical community toward greater understanding of chronic pelvic pain disorders, and prevention initiatives that may protect young women before onset can occur.