How our Mindset influences the Perception of Pain

In recent years Pain scientists and neuroscientists have declared that our mindset heavily influences our perception of pain. In today’s blog we are going to delve into this fascinating area and understand why this is true.

The Brain’s Filtering System

Within your brainstem (the unconscious part of your brain) lies a region known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS consists of a bundle of nerves which start at the top of the spinal column and extends upwards by approximately 5cm. The diameter of the RAS is slightly larger than the average pencil. All of the senses, except the sense of smell are wired directly into the RAS.The RAS has several functions but in the area of Somatics and Pain perception, we are going to consider how the RAS creates a filtering system to our mind. When teaching clients online or in person about the RAS, I liken it to a secretary, filtering the phone calls and emails to the CEO of a company. The secretary will filter and relay the necessary information to the CEO so he can make a decision. The RAS works in the same manner. It makes sure your brain does not have to deal with more information than it can handle. It plays a big role in the sensory information we perceive daily. The reason for this is because every second 100 pieces of data flood our conscious mind and a staggering 40 million pieces of data enter our subconscious mind. Our senses are constantly feeding so much information to our brain that we cannot possibly pay attention to all of it. So just like the secretary, the RAS filters all this data and provides the relevant information to be bought to one’s attention.

Let me highlight two classic examples of when we see the RAS in operation. Have you ever looked at a car that you’re interested in, only to find after researching it, going to view it or test drive it, that you now see that style of car everywhere? Before that point, you hadn’t noticed that type of car as much! That is because your RAS filters non important data and targets on what you have been focused on.

Another example of how the RAS can filter effectively can be seen when you are in a large gathering. If you have an interest in hearing what someone a few people away are talking about, your RAS will hone in on their conversation and heighten your awareness to it. You notice that the voices around you become muffled and non distinctive.

So by understanding how powerful the RAS is, we can see why the expression associated with it is, “what you think about GROWS.” It all begins with how we choose to think. So the way we talk, view life, perceive pain and act on a daily basis all comes down to how we filter the world around us. That is why empowering speech is very important and the removal of dis-empowering expressions such as “my back is as solid as a rock” or “my back feels like an ironing board” must occur to reduce the RAS focusing on the negative. Sometimes people are given labels or dis-empowering descriptions from health care practitioners such as “your back is the condition of an 80 year old” or “your back is fragile.” There are many people replaying these dis-empowering expressions which are creating limiting beliefs to what they can do in life and also subconsciously they are always on hyper alert to the smallest sensation in that region of their body.

The RAS also has huge relevance to Somatic Movement. Consider the information relayed from your skin to your brain. There is just over 2m square of our skin which contains millions of nerve cells which detect temperature, pain, location and pressure. When we use certain techniques within Somatic Movement, we are allowing the RAS to fully focus on what we direct our attention to. We don’t need to talk too much during pandiculation, instead use specific techniques to increase the actions of their RAS and allow it to focus on that area.


The Power of our Thoughts, Words and Actions

Pain scientists have identified that the power and intention of a person’s words and actions influence themselves and others. This is because areas such as the RAS will recall a comment made and replay it, re affirming it as a fact. For Instance, a client came to one of my Somatics classes. When I was guiding the group with a specific movement of their arms, she looked terrified. I quietly walked over to her and asked her if she was OK. She said that she doesn’t move her shoulder. I asked her why and she replied that her doctor told her not to move it. When I asked her how long ago he mentioned this to her, she replied, 25 years ago. To which I said, well that was then, let’s see what your shoulder can do today. By changing her limiting beliefs around her shoulder, at the end of the class, she was moving her shoulder freely. She reported that her neck pain had reduced quite significantly. This was a powerful example of how a dis-empowering or possibly misconstrued comment changed the filtering system in her RAS so that for the last 25 years, she believed that it was best not to move her shoulder. Deep emotions had become associated with her shoulder, to the point that she genuinely believed it wasn’t possible to move it and exhibited fear before her limiting belief was challenged.

In her doctor’s defense, the lady may have perceived the comment very differently to how her doctor intended her to take it. In this situation the comment or expression can become likened to a broken record, constantly being replayed in her head, reaffirming her limiting beliefs about her shoulder, which now has a label or story to it. When this happens to others as well as this client, a person will become overly protective or hyper sensitive to every sensation felt, creating further limitations in movement.

As a result, they have created what pain scientists refer to as neurotags. These neurotags are referred to in a figurative sense. Neurotags can have a positive association to a situation, feeling, experience or location. However they can also be negative. Pain scientists refer to two types of neurotags - danger neurotags and safety neurotags.

Let me explain how two situations can create two very different outcomes, depending on how your neurotag has been conditioned via your RAS.

Scenario: A person has injured their back.

Their neurotag could say the following to their subconscious:

The danger neurotag says:

“I have to live on pills, cut back on my hobbies, stay at home more. It is old age. Do I have fibromyalgia or some other inflammation issues? Why did this happen to me?”


The safety neurotag says:

“I must learn gentle somatic movements to improve my muscles, joints, posture and mobility with this brain and body mindful practice. It will help me realise that pain is not the enemy and is a sensation which will reduce with self care and education. I am starting to understand why I have had these recurring injuries, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

The way we train and use our RAS will reflect in our thoughts, words and actions. Granted there are stories and fears based around these feelings. To highlight this, let’s consider a professional football (soccer) player and professional violinist. If both individuals break one of their fingers on their left hand, their pain response and reaction will be very different. The football (soccer) player will acknowledge he has to rest and miss a few games during the season to allow it to heal. The pain will be quite minor and won’t bother him too much. Whereas the professional violinist will have a whole emotional response associated with the injury. He may think that missing a few very important concerts in the next few weeks may jeopardise his career. Plus if he loses his well earned and highly competitive position in the orchestra, it could affect his income, mortgage, family and the worries could be endless. This heightened emotional state, according to pain scientists amplifies their pain and slows down their recovery. Yet the injury is exactly the same, however their response is very different according to the language or self talk in that person’s head and whether they have good stress and pain management techniques.


Taking Action!

Over the years, I have worked with many clients and mindset is a huge area which must always be considered. As a result of this, I have created The Total Somatics Approach to Health & Wellness online program which covers the areas of Somatic Movement, Mindfulness, Mindset skills, nutrition and much more to empower and educate you in the area of your health and wellbeing.

The online program contains the latest information and is always being updated with new material so you can keep your finger on the pulse of Somatic Health and Wellness. The Program has been designed with videos and other support material so you learn why your mind and body behave a certain way and how we can change old habits for new healthy ones. I have created a program that can be performed in the privacy and comfort of your own home, at a time and pace that suits you. The program continues to be a very popular choice for people who want to reduce pain, improve posture, increase mobility and continue or return to the activities they love to do.

To experience a FREE TASTER of what to expect, CLICK HERE

To understand what Somatics is, CLICK HERE for my FREE ebook entitled “Somatics - What is it? How can it help me?”

I look forward to teaching you these fantastic skills and being available via email, Zoom or Skype if you ever have any questions or queries.

Take care,
Heidi Hadley xx

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