What is somatic tracking and how can it help my pain ?

somatic – affecting or characteristic of the body as opposed to the mind or spirit

We are often so good at attending to others that we forget to attend to ourselves. This subtle neglect can have emotional and physical consequences.

Remember the last time someone asked how you were. Didn’t it feel wonderful just to be checked in on?

Somatic tracking is about checking in how we’re feeling in our bodies. Find a comfortable seat and try it now. Are you aware of any physical sensations in your body? Perhaps in your chest, tummy, back or shoulders?

How would you describe this sensation? Is it:

  • a tingling, a tightness, a clenching?
  • sharp, dull or achey?
  • warm or hot?
  • unpleasant or pleasant?
  • in one area, or multiple?

And when you pay attention to the sensation what happens? Does it:

  • intensify or subside?
  • expand or contract?
  • move from side to side or up and down?

Whatever it does, it’s OK. You’re not fighting the sensation, and you’re not frightened by it. You’re not trying to make it go away; you’re just observing it, with curiosity and no judgement.

By doing this you are attending to your internal state, treating yourself with love and giving your brain the message that it’s safe.

Somatic tracking works because it teaches our brain to reinterpret signals from our body through a lens of safety, thus deactivating the pain.

Neuroscientists have found that paying attention to our bodily sensations mindfully (on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally) can actually shrink the ‘fight or flight’ centre of our brains – the amygdala.

You don’t need to set aside hours of your day to carry out this practice. The goal is to attend to yourself on a moment-to-moment basis: while you’re working, while you’re reading, or while you’re lying down in bed – any moment during which you can simply stop, observe and give yourself a little love and attention.

The following is a ‘Somatic Tracking Exercise’ from the BCH Center for Mind Body Medicine.

Somatic Tracking Exercise

(Source: BCH Center for Mind Body Medecine)

Remember that pain (or anxiety, nausea, or dizziness) is your brain’s alarm signal. When you do this exercise mindfully, it is teaching your brain that the pain or distress is not dangerous to you, and that you are safe and in control of the situation. By simply examining the painful sensations without emotion, your brain is learning that the pain or discomfort is nothing to be afraid of, and without the fear, the pain loses its power. The goal of the exercise is not to get rid of the pain. In fact, the more you try to get rid of the pain, the more you are telling your danger-alarm mechanism that you are in trouble, and the more likely it is to continue to run the alarm pathway of pain, anxiety, or discomfort. The goal of the exercise is to teach your brain that it is safe and in no danger, but you don’t care whether the pain changes, or gets better or worse while you are tracking it.

When should I do this exercise?

Practice this exercise when pain, distress or negative sensations or thoughts happen any time during the day. When you find yourself using your normal avoidance strategies to get away from the pain or distress you are feeling, take just 2-3 minutes and do a somatic tracking exercise to mindfully explore and examine your pain or discomfort. (You can then go ahead and do your avoidance strategy if needed.)

Directions

When you notice pain, distress, or other negative thoughts, take two minutes (or more if you like):

1. Notice it with interest, maybe even with a little curiosity, but with no emotional reactivity. Almost like a hiker who reached the top of a ridge and is just looking at the landscape on the other side with interest. Pay attention to how the pain moves around or changes in quality but do so without emotion.

2. Accept it as happening right now but realize that this thought or body sensation is transient and caused by the brain. Say to yourself “It’s just a thought, a sensation, or neurons firing.”

3. Remind yourself that since these are just sensations, they are not in any way threatening to you. These sensations are not dangerous and cannot harm you.

4. Tell yourself “I don’t need to do anything about this right now because this is not harmful, and it will pass.”

5. Tell yourself: “I’m okay. I’ll be fine. There is actually nothing wrong with my [back/head/stomach/chest] because I am healthy and strong.” Or say “I am safe, and there is no danger from these nerve impulses. I am safe. I am not in danger.”

The podcast by Curable, hosted by Alan Gordon, LCSW (Founder of the Pain Psychology Center) and Alon Ziv

Here is a useful 11-minute somatic tracking guided meditation from the app Insight Timer.

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