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.

Exercising out of love not fear

How many of us listen to music or watch TV when we are exercising? The answer: most of us. We are thinking about what we are hearing or seeing – an external stimulus – and not about the movement and feel of our bodies. The mind and body are disconnected.

Many of us exercise out of fear, rather than love. When we exercise from a place of fear we are exercising to: lose weight, stay in our current dress size, look like the ‘perfect’ being we’ve just seen on Instagram, beat our previous time or distance, keep up with up our perceived competition, brag to our friends or burn off the extra calories we feel guilty about. It may seem to come from a positive place, but it is borne of fear: fear of feeling inadequate and less than those we are comparing ourselves to, or of being rejected by our parents, friends or society.

When we exercise from a place of love, we exercise to: take care of ourselves and boost our mood through ‘happy hormones’ (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin). When we exercise out of love for ourselves, we lose the fear that keeps us stuck where we are and can ultimately make us sick. Love and fear cannot coexist. When we exercise out of love for ourselves and our bodies, our mind and body are connected. There is no conflict between what the mind is thinking and the body is doing. We are whole and can truly appreciate what our bodies can do for us.

So, the next time you are exercising, try to lose the fear and just ‘be‘ in your body and appreciate what an incredible vessel it is. Exercise out of love for yourself and try to just enjoy it for how it makes you feel and the amazing health benefits it offers you.

And if you are suffering from chronic pain, know that:

the endorphins you are producing are your body’s natural pain reliever

the dopamine you produce helps with your motor system function

the serotonin you produce helps you to sleep better

and the oxytocin you produce helps promote trust and bonding in your relationships

Above all, don’t forget: Your body is not broken. It is strong, and so are you.

Don’t leave yourself behind

When we give everything of ourselves to others, we neglect our own needs and values. We lose who we are in the pursuit of other people’s happiness. We forget ourselves and our own needs, putting others first – to the point that we lose sight or ourselves, our own needs and values.

Why? Because it seems selfish to act on our own needs and because we worry that spending time on ourselves means we are neglecting someone else. We are being neglectful – but only of ourselves. Why is neglecting ourselves OK, when we go out of our way to protect others from experiencing this?

Acting out of self-love is not selfish. In fact, until you truly love yourself, you cannot truly love another. When you love yourself you attract people who love, respect and appreciate your energy. It’s OK to give yourself the same love and kindness you give to others. You are worthy of love and kindness too.

You still have life (despite Covid-19).

Two of my neighbours died this week, on the street where I spent my childhood. Both deaths were unrelated to coronavirus. I used to babysit their lovely children, and I only have happy memories of both men. I feel so very sorry for their families. It is, as the Guardian newspaper termed, ‘grief upon grief‘, where people around the world are being denied the opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones, and friends and neighbours are unable to show their support by physically coming together to support a family.

It got me thinking: life can be short. Nothing can prepare you for the death of a loved one. You never know when your time is up. I speak from experience. I lost my dad when I was 14, and my mum the day after my 37th birthday. I lost my sister when I was 41. None of these people were what you would call ‘old’ when they died.

So, no matter what you have lost during this Covid-19 pandemic, you have not lost life. You have not lost love and you are still breathing the same air – only right now it’s cleaner.

I’m sorry if you have lost:
– Your gym classes
– Your weekly coffee morning
– Your monthly visit to the hairdressers
– Your holiday

But that’s all temporary, and it’s not a really a ‘loss’ in the real sense of the word.

I’m really sorry if you have lost:
– The date of a scheduled operation
– Your chance to sit exams you have worked damned hard studying for
– Your job
– Your marriage

However, chances are you still have a roof over your head, and you’re going to be OK – even if it may take time to get back on track financially.

What do you still have is LIFE! Life is precious. Appreciate every day that you wake, and everyone you love and who loves you back. Tell them. Make sure they know you love them. You lose that opportunity when they are gone. Heal old wounds, get back in touch with those who hold a special place in your heart, even though they did X,Y,Z to you X years ago. Let it go.

You will get through this, and if you live life consciously I’d go so far as to say that you’ll come out of this stronger and with so much more gratitude for the things you took for granted before this started. And we are all guilty of taking things for granted; assuming he/she will be there the next time we wake or come home from work, assuming our children will stay healthy just because they are young, assuming everything will be fine if we keep working, paying the bills and putting food on the table.

So be thankful for your life and the life of those you love. Appreciate them and use this time to support them and let them know you are always there for them, even though you are physically separated – for now. Life will return when it’s ready, and then we’ll be complaining about the next thing! Don’t bother – it’s a waste of your time and energy. Focus on what really matters.

Take care of yourself and those around you. Make this time count, for you’ll be back to that commute you always hated before you know it.