Just Breath and Other Ways to Rewire the Pain-filled Brain

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, or neural plasticity, is the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual’s life, e.g., brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location, the proportion of grey matter can change and synapses may strengthen or weaken over time.” -Wikipedia

I believe my form of Fibromyalgia stems from a nervous system that has been chronically in overdrive (fight or flight) mode for all of my life. At 54, that living on adrenaline came to a screeching halt when I could no longer function, forcing me to leave my teaching job and to spend the next few months largely in bed.

As a firstborn to a single mom who suffered from undiagnosed Bipolar and Schizophrenia, I know life was tense and unsure right from the get-go.  After living with my single-mom and her parents for the first 6 months of my life, my mom got married to a well-meaning man who had lost his first wife to cancer.  He had a 13-year old daughter at the time of their marriage.  My mom’s emotions were intense.  During one fight, my mom punched her fist through a plate-glass window, cutting several long cuts, needing stitches.  (My mom told me the story when I asked her about the long, smooth scars she had on her right hand.)  Cal, her husband, immediately pursued divorce because he couldn’t handle the trauma and tension my mom’s explosive behavior caused.  Unfortunately, no one seemed to look into why she had these anger issues and irrational outbursts.  Instead, mom and I moved into a cute, little cottage in the same town as Cal.

From all the photos I’ve ever seen of us,
everything looks happy and wonderful.

One of the first times I remember fearing for my safety, I was with my sister. (Jean was born four years after me with a man my mom married for about two years; Joe also filed for divorce due to the violent temper my mom displayed.) She was mad about something and began throwing and smashing the dishes in our kitchen.  I can still hear her screaming.  To this day, a screaming voice causes my heart to beat rapidly.  In fact, as I’m writing this, I can feel my heart rate increase, heat rise in my face, and panic, that has been with me as long as I can remember, rise in my chest.

These episodes continued on a regular basis in contrast with the weeks she’d spend on the couch with me taking care of her and my sister and me.  I actually preferred it when she was down like this.  I could generally count that she’d be gentle and quiet. I learned to walk on eggshells, to fake being asleep to avoid confrontation, to shutter and whimper when she got angry so that she wouldn’t hit.  My sister didn’t so much, and I viewed her getting my mom’s wrath on more than a few occasions that come back vividly, causing me again, to become anxious as I think on them.

It wasn’t until I ran away my junior year that my mom did something that caused the police to incarcerate her and eventually hospitalize her. This led to her formal diagnosis and her spending the rest of her life in protective care, making me an independent minor and my sister be placed with a family from the church we had been attending at the time.

These years of living in daily trauma led to me striving-led to me working hard at achieving my goals to have a “normal” family.  I went to college-double major and Cum Laude. I  married at 21 (then finish college at 24) and started my first job full-time teaching position a week after having my daughter. My husband front-packed my five-day-old daughter in the school administrative parking lot while I was interviewing.  They gave me six-weeks off for my maternity leave before I started. I didn’t know what it meant to live without the anxious feeling in my gut and chest.  I used that adrenaline to push me to go, go, go.  And from that relentless pushing to do and be the best at whatever I did. I got many atta-girls that fed both my ego and my need to fill the hole I didn’t know I had.  I did not know of any other way to be in this world. This continued until June 2018 when the first non-stop pain formed in my calves.  (I explain the onset of Fibromyalgia in the two blogs What’s Wrong With Me? Part 1 and What’s Wrong With Me? Part 2.) 

Set On The Healing Path

Through the 10-week Fibromyalgia Pain Program at Mary Free Bed, I was introduced to how a nervous system that has been chronically on alert (fight/flight)  is then dysregulated to be too sensitive, sending pain signals were there is no injury. “Like an amplifier always turned to its highest volume,” explains Dr. Daniel Clauw. This has led me to research neuroplasticity and rewiring the brain, which has promising new research and techniques.  I am looking to rewire my brain so that my automatic nervous system can live in parasympathetic (rest/digest) mode more often than the sympathetic (fight/flight).  

I’ve been focusing on this for the past 8 months: yoga, breathwork, meditation, EFT (tapping), resting, getting in nature, cardio exercise, naps, allowing myself to do only what seems doable at the moment… Many family members and friends had assumed that leaving the stressors of the classroom would be the fix. Sadly, no, this cannot calm down a lifetime of living with constant fear in my gut.  However, I am finding good resources and better understanding.  I do believe I’m making headway (although not as fast as I would like-tough to quelch that go-go part of me). 

On our drive home after our week spent in the woods at Pictured Rocks, scrolling through my Facebook feed, up came a post from Fedupwithfatigue.com: Rewiring the Brain to Get out of Pain-The Moskowitz ApproachAs I read, it illuminated the reason beyond just the cardio sending good endorphins throughout my body as to why my mind and body felt so much better with walking in the woods and as to why it lasted beyond just a few hours.  During my walks, I used the skills for meditation I had learned: paying specific attention to what I saw, heard, smelled, and felt. I breathed purposefully-two counts in and four counts out (feeding the parasympathetic system more than the sympathetic), and working on maintaining a tall posture (not the slumped one that has been my natural stance for as long as I can remember), holding in my stomach muscles to support my back and strengthen my core.

I then downloaded the book by Dr. Norman Doidge suggested in the article: The Brain’s Ways of Healing which “Doidge compares learning to reprogram the brain to learning a musical instrument – or more aptly, perhaps, learning a new language. The practice is most difficult at first but gets easier over time.”

Rewiring My Brain

A few things that I’m doing seem to be helping me rewire my overactive autonomic nervous system: yoga, breath-work, and walking in the woods with purposeful attention.  

  • Yoga is a meditation in movement.  When I did yoga back before trying to purposefully quiet my noisy brain, I used it for cardio and strength training.  I did not see it as meditation.  I did, however, learn to breathe through my nose and at times would focus on my breath by silently counting in, 2, 3, 4, 5; out, 2, 3, 4, 5. Now, I purposefully focus on my breath for the whole practice.  When my mind wanders (which is often), as soon as I realize it, I work to bring my focus back on the in and out of my breath, linking it to the full movement and feeling it as it flows in and out from my belly to my chest. 
  • The breathwork practices that I’ve been doing are two different types. (There are several types): Clarity Breath Work and SOMA Breathwork.  While each is a bit different from one another, both use focused, measured breathing over an extended period of time 20-60 minutes. I’m enjoying both and find myself energized, content, and pain-free for an extended amount of time. It seems to be extending longer and longer the more I do it. 
  • Meditative walking in the woods is new to me.  I did it purposefully while in the woods by myself near Beaver Lake.  This is something that I want to continue and use. I will use my breathing and meditation techniques while walking in nature. 
I would also like to develop the visualization that Dr. Michael H. Moskowitz used (which tends to be harder for me) and try the sound therapy (iLs that Doidge discusses at length in chapters 7 & 8 of his book).  I have participated in one sound bath session and hope to be in another coming up soon at the yoga studio I attend. 

My efforts are producing good results.  I’m off of all prescription drugs for Fibromyalgia symptoms and using very little over the counter pain medications.  I’m finding I’m lasting from morning to night.  I’m more positive and more energetic.  I’m beginning to make plans, knowing I’ll be able to make them. And as Doidge explained, it’s getting easier to practice calming my noisy brain the more I do it.

Have you heard of rewiring the brain? Are you actively using this for healing? I’d love to hear what you’re doing and any results you’re finding.

Thank you for visiting my blog today. 
I am committing to posting once a week on Fridays.  
However, as you know, my new normal means that sometimes 
I have to listen to my body and am not able to follow through 
as planned. 
Thank you for your understanding.

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2 thoughts on “Just Breath and Other Ways to Rewire the Pain-filled Brain

  • Hi Katie, just wanted to say thank you for mentioning Fed Up with Fatigue in your blog post! I'll be including your blog post in my weekly fibromyalgia news post that comes out tomorrow. I love, love, love what you've been doing to help heal from fibromyalgia. It is super inspiring to me! Well done! I need to follow your lead!

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