- Your brain is incredibly neuroplastic and can change quickly in whatever direction you choose.
- We automatically know how to feel pain. What about feeling pleasure? It gets buried in the stresses of life.
- Play and social connection are inherent in all of us and using feel and visualization to connect with it will create a rapid shift.
- Enjoying life in so many dimensions is a unique human trait, and we can thrive if it is nurtured.
When you are experiencing relentless pain, life becomes heavy. You are just trying to keep your head above water from dealing with stress. Your life devolves into surviving in addition to carrying a pain burden. You may have forgotten what it’s like to live your life with deep joy and excitement. We have suggested that creating a positive vision for your life and pursuing it shifts your brain onto more pleasant circuits. Another dimension of process is connecting to feelings of freedom and pleasure from your past. It may initially take some effort to find them, but they are there. I would suggest an ongoing process that I have personally found helpful.
Find a quiet time and place where you can just think and possibly go into a meditative state. Think back to an event in your life when you felt carefree and joyous. It could any number of situations at any point in time. Visually take yourself back there, remembering as many details as you can. Possibilities include:
- Dreams/ goals
- The weather/ temperature
- The conversations
- Friends/ who you were with
- The activities
- Specific feelings and emotions
- What music, movies, sports, and art did you enjoy during this period?
- Are there songs and artists that you were particularly connected to?
Face and connect with your current reality
Spend as much time as you can with this exercise and repeat it often. Once you have really internalized some of these joyous experiences then sit down and fully experience your present life – pain and all. What happened to your sense of play and excitement?
- Compare it visually and emotionally to one of the times mentioned above.
- Note the gap.
- Make a commitment to get joy back and hold onto it. It requires repetition to change your brain.
- When you fall back into The Abyss (it happens frequently), again note the difference compared to your great moments.
- Don’t worry about making a “plan.” This is an exercise of feeling and waking up parts of your nervous system that have been dormant.
Pain or pleasure?
Believe it or not, you have a choice. You remember that one of the cardinal rules of healing is not sharing your mental or physical pain with others, especially with your family. It is completely understandable why you would want to, but where is your brain developing? I just talked to a gentleman who stated that over 90% of his waking hours are spent in either complaining about his pain and medical care or searching for a solution. Almost everyone in chronic pain does this, including me – for 15 years. I definitely had forgotten what feeling good felt like.
This exercise represents the opposite experience. As you connect with the best part of your brain, your body chemistry is dramatically altered into a safety profile where your body can rest, regenerate, and heal. We also know that optimism and a positive attitude directly lower inflammation in your body, and therefore the pain.1This is not a light psychological game. It is a powerful way to alter your body’s chemistry.
Watching a movie connected with a past pleasurable experience is also effective in waking up your brain. It is slightly different than just watching a funny movie to distract yourself. One movie that caught me off guard many years ago was “Happy Gilmore.” I had just flown in from Seattle to Sun Valley and I was exhausted. I was laying on the floor next to my son, who was about 15 at the time. Somehow, it seemed like one of the most entertaining movies I had ever seen. I don’t recall ever laughing so hard for so long. It connected me to a moment in time that I won’t forget. I have watched it at least 20 more times over the years, and it still lightens my mood. For each person, it will be a unique movie, song, or event.
Interestingly, for those of you who have seen it, there is a section where Adam Sandler goes to his “happy place” when he is stressed. The movie is simply silly, but this part happens to be right on with regards to using visualization to pull yourself out of a hole.
It is well-known that performers do repeated visualizations before individual events, whether it is in music, sports, performing arts, or even surgery. Circuits are being burned into your brain that allow you to perform without overthinking. How else could an ice skater, concert pianist, or mogul skier perform such feats so quickly. In a book that I have recommended to my patients for years, The Talent Code,2 the author points out that some teams have their tennis players swing a racket without a ball for three months. Why not apply these same tools to making pleasure your default mode?
Stories from the Mountains: Connecting to the Intelligence of the Heart
The goal of this exercise to wake up dormant parts of your brain. Play and pleasure become buried by pain and survival. It is different than creating a vision or a business plan. You are reconnecting to the powerful emotional part of your brain. You can nurture it and watch it “wake up.” Feeling these sensations and experiencing these memories is key. Remember, reconnect, and “wake the fun up.”
Questions and considerations
- Consider how the quality of your life has been taken away by being in chronic pain. No one warned you about this possibility when you were in high school.
- Take a moment to remember a time when you were excited about the future and what you might experience and accomplish.
- This exercise is a process to refuel feelings of enjoyment that have been buried, but not gone. Remember, pain circuits are permanent, but so are pleasurable ones.
- As you nurture the more enjoyable aspects of your brain, you’ll use the pain areas less and they will atrophy. By trying to “fix” your pain, you’ll reinforce them.
- Healing occurs as you become proficient at processing stress/ pain, but you also have to move into the part of your brain that involves play.
- Anxiety is a threat physiological state of flight or fight, and play is a safety physiological state of rest and regenerate. Where would you like to spend your time?
- Dantzer R, et al. Resilience and immunity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2018); 74:28-42. doi.org/10.1016.j.bbi.2018.08.010
- Coyle Dan. The Talent Code. Random House, New York, NY, 2009.