- A significant aspect of your healing journey is stimulating your brain to create a new set of circuits that are pleasurable.
- The sequence to change your brain is 1) awareness 2) separation (create some “space” 3) redirecting or reprogramming.
- None of this can happen without you being aware of where you are starting.
- Four levels of awareness are presented.
It is interesting how most of us want to become aware of the details of a product or situation before we feel we can make a good decision. It is only logical. Yet we tend to make quick reactive decisions about our own health or body. Part of this is because when we are trapped by anything, especially pain, we go into a reactive mode, which is irrational, hardwired, and powerful. Reactive patterns of thinking preclude awareness. The blood supply of your brain shifts from the neocortex (thinking centers) to the lower parts of the brain (survival) and your automatic circuits are in play. This scenario is the opposite of being aware.
With your brain “on fire” it requires specific skills to deenergize these circuits to allow the possibility of better awareness. Awareness also becomes one of the basic tools to calm down your fight or flight response. It is tricky in that somehow you have to penetrate back into your thinking brain and realize you are in this state of mind. You’ll eventually understand, with practice, that deep awareness is an incredibly powerful tool and platform for living your life.
Awareness is the beginning
Awareness can be defined as, “Being fully connected to the present moment.”
Why would awareness be brought up in the middle of a project dealing with chronic pain? First of all, no problem is solvable without understanding it. Chronic pain is incredibly complex and becoming deeply aware of the nature of the neurochemical nature of it is critical. But awareness is also a powerful tool in solving it. Awareness is the first step stimulating your brain to rewire (neuroplasticity). You can’t change something you can’t see.
Awareness is a powerful tool that will be critical throughout your Journey and eventually your life. There are four perspectives to consider:
- Ingrained patterns
Environmental awareness involves placing your attention on a single sensation – taste, touch, sound, temperature, etc. When you switch your sensory input from racing thoughts to a different sensation, it dampens the stress hormone response. This is the basis of mindfulness – fully experiencing what you are doing in the moment.
I use an abbreviated version that I call “active meditation,” which is placing my attention on a specific sensory input for 5 to 10 seconds. It is simple and can be done multiple times per day. Eventually, it becomes somewhat automatic and a “go to” resource for calming yourself throughout the day.
Meditation is an advanced environmental awareness that taps into emotions, judgments, and even your ingrained patterns. There are various methods and schools of thought to connect fully with the present moment. One basic technique is to focus only on your breath, becoming aware of as many aspects of your breathing as you can. As you do this, you’ll become immersed in the moment. Various distracting thoughts will enter your mind, but instead of becoming enmeshed with them, you simply watch them come, and then watch them leave. The goal is not to ignore these thoughts, but to learn how to not react to them. This is the process of detachment. After the momentary distraction, you gently pull yourself back to your breathing as quickly as possible.
When you meditate, you don’t try to slow down or control your racing thoughts. Instead, you “de-energize” them so that they have less control over you. As you develop the ability to stay in the present moment, the thoughts become less relevant and decrease—often dramatically. The key is to not try and edit, fix, or control them; that will only make them stronger.
Emotional awareness is more challenging. Allowing yourself to feel all of your emotions is a big step in healing; you can’t change what you can’t feel. However, you have to train yourself to tolerate feeling vulnerable, which most of us hate. We are programmed to be tough and take care of ourselves. Being vulnerable is not rewarded in the rest of the animal world and is often punished in the human experience.
One of my colleagues coined a phrase, “You have to feel to heal.” If you are intent on avoiding pain, you’ll become worn down. The key is to assimilate unpleasant feelings into your day-to-day life.
Judgment/ Storytelling is a major contributor to creating mental chaos in our lives. Dr. David Burns in his book Feeling Good1 outlines 10 cognitive distortions that are a core part of our upbringing. Some of them include:
- Labeling yourself or others
- “Should” thinking – the essence of perfectionism
- Focusing on the negative
- Minimizing the positive
- Emotional reasoning
You can’t fix these “errors” in thinking, since they are deeply embedded in our brains. But gaining awareness allows you to substitute more rational thought patterns. This is the essence of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).1 Another approach, called Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT),2 creates an awareness of these distortions and then you train yourself to just be with the emotions created by them. As your reactions to disruptive thoughts decreases, you are able to re-direct your attention and calm your nervous system on your terms.
It is also becoming increasingly clear to me why the concept of self-esteem is such an incredibly damaging idea. It represents an attempt to counteract the deeply unpleasant feelings generated by your unconscious brain’s need to keep you alive and it is gross mismatch. What is also apparent that much our “self-esteem” is based on various combinations of the above-mentioned distortions. The good news is that once you understand the nature of these distortions, there is nothing you have to do. They are not real. The sequence is becoming aware of them (not ignore), create some space with the tools that you connect with, and then just move on to what you want. You don’t have to change your life. You alter your reactions, and your life will change. It is remarkable how powerful this approach is in light of how little effort is required.
Ingrained thought patterns are the most problematic. Another term for this aspect of consciousness is “blind spots.” Recent neuroscience research has revealed that thoughts, concepts, and ideals become embedded in our brains and are just as real to you as the chair you are sitting in.3, We are all programmed by our pasts – every second up this very moment. In fact, higher level mammal’s brain development is dependent on interactions with the environment. Primate experiments have shown that monkeys that are raised from birth in isolation cannot interact with others and are a threat to their offspring.4Case studies of people raised in severely deprived homes cannot learn to interact with others or feel appropriate emotions. The behaviors are irreversible. We are hardwired to survive but not to thrive.5
Your thoughts and beliefs are your version of reality. That is why people often engage in aggressive behavior when their belief systems are challenged. Or the opposite scenario may occur, which is becoming passive. There is a reason why passive aggressive behavior is so prevalent. Either way, challenges to your core life outlook are deeply disturbing. By definition, your belief system is your “filter” through which you interpret your environment and take the best actions to survive and hopefully thrive.
But while in pain, many of our behaviors are less than ideal. How could they be otherwise in the context of so much suffering and misery? But since these deep reactions have always been there from infancy, you can’t see them or understand the impact they are having on those close to you. Having a strong support system is an important part of your recovery from chronic pain because positive relationships have a calming effect. Unfortunately, many of us who experience chronic pain also drive people close to us away. Only awareness of your own patterns can grant you freedom from this cycle. By definition, you are not going to be able to see these patterns without outside observation. Seeing how others see you is challenging.
Understanding and practicing awareness is the first step in reprogramming your brain. Your brain’s structure is physically altered. The sequence is as follows: awareness, separation, and re-programming.
Environmental awareness is the foundational first step. Spending time with “active meditation” both changes the sensory input from unpleasant and disruptive to neutral or pleasant. Regardless of where you are in your journey, practicing awareness will help calm you down.
When you are ready for the second level of emotional awareness, simply watch your emotions pass by. Then, pull yourself back into seeing, hearing, and feeling as quickly as possible. It is a little challenging, as emotions often evoke powerful reactions. Training yourself to be with these feelings instead of fighting them is a learned skill and may require some support from a professional.
The third level – judgment – is a lifetime journey. The key is to be persistent in not judging others or yourself. A good starting point is understanding than whenever you place a positive or negative judgment on someone else, you have simply projected your view of yourself onto the world. As you become aware of these cognitive distortions, you will be able to regain control of your life.
Remember that in the fourth level of ingrained patterns, it is impossible to see yourself through your own eyes. This is where resources such as psychologists, good friends, spouses, children, and seminars are helpful. The key is being open and willing to listen. You will also learn humility.
While it may feel like a monumental task, there no greater freedom than living in awareness. Once you are in control of the narrative, it is important to ask – how do you want to live the story of your life?
Questions and considerations
- Developing a deep awareness is an important step in moving on. The opposite energy is suppression thoughts and emotions, which is not only counterproductive but has also been shown to cause damage to the memory center of your brain.
- Challenge yourself to see yourself the way others might see you. You may not like it at first.
- Then begin to look at the way others see themselves vs your perception of them.
- There are infinite variations of awareness, and these four categories are only suggested to help organize your thinking about the topic.
- Once your consciousness begins to kick into this mode, life becomes incredibly more interesting. At some point, we all become worn out with our versions of the world. Just sit back, listen, and enjoy.
- Burns David. Feeling Good. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2008.
- Schwartz Dick. No Bad Parts. Sounds True. Boulder, CO, 2021.
- Feldmann Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions are Made. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, NY, 2017.
- Blum Deborah. Love at Goon Park. Perseus Publishing. Philadelphia, PA, 2002.
- Eagleman David. Penguin Random House, New York, NY, 2021.
- Hulbert JC, et al. Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression. Nature Communications (2016). doi: 10.1038/ncomms1103