“Beyond right doing and wrongdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
I love reflecting on this poem with attention to what it means to build resilience within the physical body.
When we are uncertain of our bodies, when they feel unsafe to us, or foreign to inhabit, we can feel like a strong wind can come and knock us over. A sideways glance at lifting something off of the floor, a sneeze, eating the wrong thing- these may take us out of our game for a period of time. We may have past experiences that have caused us to develop this view of our physical selves as being so unstable- past injuries or past conditions that have validated an unsafe experience of our physical selves.
But as we move along a path with our physical bodies, slowly curating experience, confidence, building the checking accounts of our physical well-being, we begin to move from a new place. A felt sense of confidence and enough-ness. We see that we can eat “the wrong thing” (whatever that means anyway), we can move in a way that is less than functional, or is purely for fun (I’m thinking of my friend hopping across rocks toward a waterfall), and our physical bodies can adapt. We can move in novel ways and we can have enough bandwidth, enough resilience to enjoy the movement, to get beyond our previous limitations to move beyond injury.
When we inhabit this state (which I believe to be the natural state we are born into but forget), we no longer have to hold tight to the narrow bands of perfectionism in eating, thinking or moving in order to have the outcomes we desire.
We can be more resilient, more confident withstand more as we move our physical, aging bodies through the world. We move beyond right and wrong and better understand our true resilient nature.
This month, is all about enhancing resilience from a neurologic level. First, we need a little info to get us started (basic biology about the nervous system in general, and specifically about felt sensation in the body), but once we get the basics down we can start to explore the parameters of sensory experiences, to learn how to work with and change our own felt sense.
For those of you who have studied with me, you know I use the term
“stethoscopes within the body” (a wonderful cue from yoga teacher, Tias Little) to cue the “listening” in on the physical body, breath (really any movement).
Truly, the cells doing the work are not little mini stethoscopes (though that would be so cute!), but rather specialized sense receptors. Sensory information comes from within or outside of our body, and travels up through the spinal cord to arrive at our brain- where it is perceived.
These sense receptors convey all sorts of information- about where the body is in space, how the joints are moving or positioned, we have sense receptors that convey information about temperature, and those that convey information about the chemistry of our blood.
The broad categories of sense receptors we have in the body are:
- Chemoreceptors (which detect smell, taste and pH levels)
- Photoreceptors (detect visual information)
- Thermoreceptors (detect changes in temperature)
- Mechanoreceptors (detect changes in muscle length and contraction force, auditory information, vestibular information, sense deformation of tissues due to movement)
The function of sense receptor is given away in it’s name: sense (feeling) and receptor (receiving). Think of these cells as thousands of stethoscopes that live in your body and perceive the world inside and around you. They are highly trained in maintaining homeostasis- or the balance of equilibrium among many different systems.
These sense receptors are also highly changeable based on how you use them. Take, for instance, a gymnast who performs aerial tricks. She needs highly refined mechanoreceptors to tell her where her spine, hip, shoulders are in 3D space, moment to moment, in order to be able to pull off her trick and land safely.
Her sense receptors are honed through years of practice to become highly sensitive and accurate to this information. Through her training, these sense receptors are also highly tolerant- she is able to perform A LOT of movement without feeling disoriented.
Now consider the opposite condition. Many of us might know an older adult who has moved less and less through the years. Maybe they mostly sit or stand and walk (their sense receptors and bodies are used to this orientation to the vertical). Maybe to only lie down when sleeping (or maybe they sleep in a reclining chair, and never really go totally supine).
This person’s sense receptors have grown accustomed to very little movement. The sense receptors are sensitive and trained to maintain what the mover is used to- which isn’t much.
When I work with older adults with parkinson’s, getting up and down on the floor, changing relationship to vertical (turning all directions), these are key components to start to create more adaptability and flexibility within the sense receptors that give information about where our body is in space.
If you swim, the simple act of practicing flip turns is supremely helpful in challenging mechanoreceptors to provide vestibular and proprioceptive input and strengthening adaptability within your neuronal signaling!
Sense Receptors Can Be Trained to Be More or Less Sensitive:
After Trauma or an Injury, and With Increased Perception of Danger, Receptor Sensitivity is Heightened
Imagine that you are living in a nomadic tribe that is at war with a neighboring tribe. The warriors in your group are anticipating an attack from a neighboring village. As you wait, your hearing becomes acute- listening to detect any little breaking of a twig that may denote an attack from the neighboring tribe. Your vision grows acute in the dark- your photoreceptors adapting so that you can see as best as possible any enemy that may be coming in your direction. Your sympathetic nervous system elevates your heart rate, readying you for fight or flight and making the above mentioned adaptations possible.
In our modern lives, we continue with this same system, yet our drama is very different. As students, our heart races when we use our ATMs, anticipating a zero balance account in our checking account. We drive in traffic, and when someone cuts us off, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered and our heart races, anger levels fly off the charts.
Whenever we anticipate danger or challenge, our old primitive loops execute to save us from our perceived threats.
All of these experiences increase our perception of danger in our world and heighten or sensitize our sense reception. I have already introduced the idea of pain as being relational to danger detecting from the neuro orthopedic institute (please check out here if you are interested).
But let’s layer some information on top of that.
If you have a danger detection system that is humming along, giving you good information about when your skin is getting too near a fire (activating thermoreceptors) or that your tendon is getting overly stretched (activating mechanoreceptors), these danger messages will send signals up the chain to your brain, which will in turn create pain (the sensation of hot or pain from stretch), that will prompt a physical response. You may shuffle a bit away from the fire. In the case where your tendon is lengthening, you may contract your muscle to shorten your tendon a bit.
When someone loses this danger messaging system, such as in the presence of Type II diabetes, they need to be very careful. This is when a person can sustain burns to their skin, wounds, all without their knowledge. Our danger detection is truly a beautiful system.
Our danger detection can go off line if we lose blood supply (fresh oxygen) to an area. This causes the receptors to starve and die.
Our danger detection can also go into overdrive.
This can happen easily after an injury or trauma, or after a chronic condition where we have been in an unsafe environment for a prolonged period of time.
When our danger detection goes into overdrive, it is akin to having a car alarm that goes off in a strong wind, rather than when someone is trying to break in.
When this happens in our bodies, it is a problem, because we perceive danger and have painful episodes when there is no threat involved.
After an injury or trauma, the body attempts to protect itself by defining a more narrow margin homeostasis- it lowers the threshold of sensory information before danger is detected. Let’s use the examples above:
In the case where you were sitting too close to the fire. You felt hot and eventually moved away when your brain created pain. If you did not respond quickly enough, you may have sustained a burn on your shoulder.
The nervous system learns and adapts to this information. The next time you are sitting close to the fire, your thermoreceptors will become more sensitive, noticing more heat sooner, perceiving danger sooner, and working to get you to feel pain sooner, so that you get out of the situation before you get a burn.
So after an injury or trauma, you have a new level of sensitivity, that is an adaptation to protect yourself by noticing pain.
There is a wonderful Ted Talk by Lorimer Moseley (PhD neuroscience- listen here) where he discusses his own pain system transformation following an injury.
It is important to acknowledge when your sense receptors that register danger have become too highly sensitized- but how do we do this? Talk with a trusted doctor, or friend. Please know that you can work through this.
So what if, our sense receptors need to be downregulated, relaxed, tuned down in their activity- how do we do that?
Turning Down the Activation Within Your Sense Receptors:
These suggestions are for working with an overactive sensory system. If you have neuropathies, peripheral vascular disease, you have an underactive sensory system. These suggestions will not be harmful for you, but you will want to speak with your Physical Therapist about strategies for stimulating your nervous system.
Working with your nervous system to help change your protect by pain level is a challenge that requires multiple approaches. You are ultimately always working with changing your contextual cues. We will discuss the following practices and their potential benefit over the next month or two of writing, spilling over into the new year.
1) Sensing homeostasis more clearly (body scan)
2) Clean up your language around your injury/ trauma/ body (reduce danger messaging)
(watch for sneaky words like “never”, “impossible”, “inaccessible”, a body part “went out”)
*This is also a good place to practice safety messaging and inflammation control (such as with lymphatic massage)
3) Guided visualization of movement (including right/ left identification)
4) Graded movement- graded exposure to stimulus (“safe and sore”, “motion is lotion”)
Sensory Practice #1: the Body Scan
Sensing Homeostasis More Clearly
In biological terms, homeostasis is defined as "the state of steady internal, physical, and chemical conditions maintained by living systems. This is the condition of optimal functioning for the organism and includes many variables, such as body temperature and fluid balance, being kept within certain pre-set limits.”
Homeostasis is a midline that allows us to function optimally. And our ability to sense into our homeostasis, our norm, and to maintain it is extremely important for moving through the world well.
Normal, is quite relative. In his work with trauma, Bessel van der Kolk noticed that the veterans that experienced the most intense PTSD also demonstrated difficulty sensing homeostasis within their bodies (the functionality of their brains had changed to diminish sensing homeostasis).
One of the most powerful ways to work with noticing homeostasis is mind body movement and meditation with a focus on present moment awareness. My favorite form of this mind body medicine (outside of safe yoga), is the practice elucidated by John Kabat Zinn in his focus on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – the body scan- which you can practice here.
The body scan is a practice in which we can sense into the present moment, and the physical body in real time, and in an egalitarian way.
Egalitarian sensing is crucial, because the sensory systems adapt very quickly to give us more cues from certain areas than from others. After we have a pain or trauma, the sensory system adapts to take up more cues, more information from a specific area.
Think of our sense receptors like CCTV cameras trained on recording crime in areas. In areas of high activity, the cameras will be on all the time. In the body, we create more cameras (receptors) and train the cameras to become more sensitive to activity (sensitized).
The body scan asks that we practice opening our awareness back up to witness the whole of the body. This in turn, allows for a more accurate and true reflection of sensation.
Not only do we sense into our areas of pain or trauma, but we also notice all other areas. In so doing, we build our connection with homeostasis. We take into account all of the parts. We don’t disregard pain, and we also don’t focus on it either. In doing so, we change the sensitization/ dullness of our sensory system to reflect more accurate information.
I highly recommend sitting down to practice a body scan this week. This is my favorite body scan practice.
If you don’t have 30 minutes, treat yourself with 10 or 20 minutes.
Join us next week to learn about cleaning up the language you use about your body/ injuries/ capacity.