Growth Mindset: A Teacher’s Approach to Healing Chronic Pain

White background with childlike lines and shapes scattered around in peach, teal, purple, gold, and sky blue. The title text in purple and peach- Growth Mindset: A Teacher's Approach to Healing Chronic Pain

The last several years of teaching 6th grade students, my partner teachers and I focused on growth mindset- a term first coined by Carol Dweck. Dr. Dweck’s research into fixed and growth mindset changed my approach to how I viewed my role in my students learning. I understood that I needed to open their minds to pursuing what they wanted and that the only limits are those that we put on ourselves.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

Carol Dweck, 2015

Growth mindset is tied closely with brain plasticity. For me, these two things get me up in the morning by 7:30am even though I feel so very tired and my body feels rusted. It’s what causes me to meditate before I do anything else. It’s what gives me hope and even confidence that I can work towards calming my overactive neural system.

In this week’s post, I am using A Chronic Voice’s March Writing Prompts of  Incorporating, Breathing, Smiling, Stopping, and Relishing to talk about using the growth mindset as a way to rewire the chronic pain brain.

INCORPORATING

January and February were tough months. I’ve felt stymied. This uncomfortableness causes me to search. In my recent search, I found Dr. Andrew D. Huberman, a neuroscientist out of Standford University. He mainly does research. However, he also is big on sharing his findings and his understanding on how we can better manage our body systems. I’ve been incorporating what I’ve learned from him to bring about better days.

Using Light to Better Sleep

Based on Dr. Huberman’s recommendation, I’ve been getting morning light, when it’s still low in the sky to help set the time melatonin will be released in my body. Melatonin is our body’s way of preparing us for sleep. Dr. Huberman suggests getting 3-5 minutes in morning light (even if it’s cloudy as it often is where I live during the winter months). Then, at sunset, getting light again.

He explains in an interview with Mandy Erickson, ” If sunlight reaches your eyes soon after you wake, it triggers a neural circuit that controls the timing of the hormones cortisol and melatonin, which affect sleep. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a night owl or a mourning dove, he noted — the important thing is to get some sun for at least a few minutes soon after getting out of bed. Going outside for the light is better than sitting by a window because glass filters out some of the ultraviolet light that assist the clock setting. For the same reason, you’ll want to leave the sunglasses behind. (Of course, never stare at any light so bright it hurts.)”

Deeper, Restorative Sleep

Through tracking my sleep using a Fitbit, I’m able to see that I am getting better sleep overall. I’ve consistently stayed in the 80%-90% rating for quality of sleep with only 3 nights in a month that were lower (65-75%). I’m pretty excited to see that my deep and REM sleep are both in the average range for women my age.

Prior to focusing on morning light (sometimes using a therapy light instead of natural light), I am seeing the number of days of solid sleep improve. Also, I’m seeing the amount of deep sleep and REM sleep are staying in the typical range for women my age.

Related Reading: Managing Chronic Pain is a FULL Time Job

BREATHING

Another big focus that Huberman emphasizes is using our breath to help us better control our nervous system. Over the past few years, thanks to a wonderful yoga community that introduced me to Breath Work, I’ve been really focusing on using breath to calm down.

The typical advice that is given is to breath out longer than your breath intake to calm the nervous system. This impacts the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) or the system that allows for resting our body and digesting our food. The longer out breath triggers the brain to think we have the luxury of slowing down.

Controlling Your Response with Breath

Dr. Huberman and his colleagues have been researching the use of breath in controlling of our autonomic arousal system. In an article in Scientific American, Huberman explains the fastest way to calm down, “Data show that during sleep and claustrophobic states, people and animals generate what are called “physiological sighs,” double inhales followed by exhales. Children also do this when they are sobbing. A physiological sigh, two or three times, is the fastest way that we are aware of to bring the level of autonomic arousal back down to baseline.”

I have used this breath of double into one long out breath for calming down. Another type of breath Huberman suggests, involves counting which focuses me on the breath. This is called Box Breathing. It is 4 counts in, hold for 4, 4 counts out, hold for 4-repeat. He said that his research is showing that by practicing this type of controlled breathing, people are able to handle stress better, among other benefits. I tend to do the physiological sigh 5 times and then the counted breathing for another 10 times. This brings an overall quietening of my body and mind.

I did this at a recent doctor’s appointment. When the nurse took my blood pressure, it was quite high. She let me know the doctor would take it again later. My visit with my GP was pretty emotional. I went in because of the depression I was experiencing, so I cried as we talked. However, after crying, I worked on breathing for probably ten minutes prior to the end of the appointment. Just before I left, he retook my blood pressure and both numbers were noticeably lower.

Alternate Nostril Breathing for Calming Anxiety

Another breath technique I like for calming anxiety is Alternate Nostril Breathing. It can also help with concentration. As you can see in an Adriene’s tutorial, you use your fingers to lightly block alternating nostrils. Yet, you can do it without others even knowing you’re doing it by just thinking about the nostril you’re breathing in and out from while doing the same pattern as shown in the video below.

Using Breath to Breakthrough Fibro Fog

I have learned to also use breath to help clear Fibro Fog as it’s coming on. It doesn’t work when I’m at my worst (a 20-minute meditation often helps with that). I use Breath of Fire (or Kapalabhati). This involves nose breathing with passive intake of air and quick, forceful breath out.

Great Instruction from Adriene.

Related Reading: Just Breathe and Other Ways to Rewire the Pain-filled Brain

SMILING

I have been smiling more ever since my 3-month Half-smile experiment which I write about in my post Smile Power! Emotional and Physical Healing. However, during my counseling appointment, I once again began to cry at the smallest of thing. I talked about wondering if I should see my GP about an antidepressant.

I’ve struggled with this ever since having a tough bought with Cymbalta just after my diagnosis with Fibromyalgia. After our discussion, I decided that I needed to address the sadness that had been weighing me down ever since getting home from our trip to Utah in October.

My visit with my doctor (the one mentioned above in the breathing section) went well. He listened with empathy and agreed to have me try the lowest dose of Lexipro. I’ve been taking it for two weeks now at 5mg, and I’m feeling like I can smile and it’s not faking. I’m appreciating the morning light as I step out onto our deck, and I’m smiling because I’m not feeling so overwhelmed that I can’t function.

White background with childlike lines and shapes in peach, purple, teal, sky blue, and gold.  In purple square frame with rounded corners is a photo of Katie, smiling and squinting.  She's in the woods, snow covering the ground.

This past week, my husband and I went on short hikes near Lake Michigan. The sun was out, although it was pretty nippy. I felt such joy. First time in a while. My smile shows it:)

Related Reading: Smile Power! Physical and Emotional Healing

RELISHING

I am relishing the come of spring. I am hopeful for so many reasons.

1. Myofascial Release Therapy

Last week I started myofascial release therapy with a Dr. John Barnes trained Physical Therapists which is a therapy that Dr. Ginevra Liptan, Fibromyalgia specialist, highly recommends. I had looked into it last year, but it is so expensive. So, I have been using YouTube and what I researched which has helped somewhat. However, I can’t seem to ever get my muscles to let go much or for very long. My husband agreed that I should give it a try. After one session working on my lower abdomen and lower back, I slept the whole night threw without having to get up to pee (which is usually a 2-3 times a night routine). I’m excited because I’m also getting trained on how to better self-treat at home. (Look for my upcoming post.)

2. EMDR Counseling

Through counseling, I am working to reprocess difficult memories to deal with negative messages I have going in my head due to complex PTSD. I had never really considered my past as an issue. In fact, I see it as a strength that has made be a better human overall. Yet, I now understand that the deep seeded insecurities I have about actually being accepted and wanted are directly linked to that. Relishing in the process, I am feeling stronger little by little.

3. COVID Vaccine

Just this morning, my husband got the call from our local hospital to set up an appointment for the Pfizer vaccine. He’s a food manufacturer auditor, so he falls in the 1b category. After they took his information, they asked about me. He told him my age, 56, and that I had Fibromyalgia. The scheduler said, “Well, let’s get her in, too!” I can’t tell you how happy I am to be able to get this done and just how freeing it’s going to feel once I’ve had it. I’m preparing for the worst for both shots, but I can weather it because it means finely reaching a goal our world has had for over a year.

Related Reading: The Ideal Medical Configuration for Chronic Pain Treatment

STOPPING

Stopping here, I bet you’re wondering, So, how does this tie into Growth Mindset?

Dr. Huberman explains, “Dopamine is released anytime we experience something we really like, but under very specific conditions. Anytime we are moving towards something, and we think we’re on the right path, dopamine is released. And this is nature’s way of telling whatever neurons are active during that movement down that path. So this could be exercise. It could be a relationship breakthrough. … It could be learning some little piece of a puzzle that you’re excited to learn.”

In this video, Dr. Huberman explains much more about how to use growth mindset to rewire our brain.
He gives a clear and understandable explanation that I find fascinating.

Moving Towards A Goal

“We need to think if we’re talking about the nervous system,…It’s a process. That’s how the neural circuits that underlie reward get stronger. And the beauty of the brain is that you have this thing of neuroplasticity, which is its ability to change itself throughout the whole lifespan. And the more you practice this, the better you get at it … It means … you have the energy to continue to push forward.”

Dr. Andrew Huberman

I’m focused on my goal of calming down my autonomic nervous system. I believe that this is the key to managing the symptoms of Fibromyalgia. All of what I’m doing is slowly but surely rewiring this hopped up brain of mine.

Huberman explains that when the dopamine is released as we work towards a goal. He states that it’s even better if we struggle and make mistakes. When we want to work on developing new brain pathways (a new skill, knowledge,) as an adult, we need to have an alertness (focus) and a sense of urgency.

“…there’s this concept of getting the download from sleep, which is, you know, in sleep, you’re you were essentially expunging the things that you don’t need, the stuff that is meaningless from the previous day (and laying down the new neurons from the things you need).”

Dr. Andrew Huberman

He says it’s not helpful to practice for hours and hours, but to practice for as long as we can hold that focus. Then, during the deep sleep cycle or deep rest (such as during Yoga Nidra practice), our brain does the physical rewiring of neurons based on our day’s experiences. Miraculously, allowing us to develop new skills and ways of being.

White background with childlike lines and shapes in purple, gold, teal, peach, and sky blue.  In the center, is an image of hands strumming a ukulele, tying to Growth Mindset and rewiring the brain.

Rewiring During Deep Sleep Cycle

This past month, nearly every day, I’ve practiced the ukulele for 30-60 minutes, focusing pretty intensely. It’s amazing just how awful and awkward I am with every new chord, song, strum, or picking pattern. After practice, I don’t feel like I’ve really improved. Then, the next day, WOW, I can viscerally notice the difference. My fingers find their place faster and surer, my strumming comes more naturally than just the day before.

“You always have only three options. You can either be stationary, … you can retreat, or you can go forward. … Anxiety and stress, and what we call ‘autonomic arousal’ were designed to move us. They create a sense of agitation and discomfort for a reason, but it wasn’t just designed to move us to run and hide. It was also designed to move us forward.”

Dr. Andrew Huberman

So by using Growth Mindset, I am working on calming down my nervous system through focused practice on breathing, meditation, playing the ukelele, practicing yoga, smiling, walking in nature, EMDR, journaling, and even myofascial release. To do this, I have to be present and focused, purposefully thinking about how I am creating new pathways.

Related Reading: Five Steps to Take When In Constant Pain

What goals are you working towards? What’s so promising to me is that it’s not about reaching the goal. It’s about working towards a goal and knowing you’re moving in the right direction. So, just take a step forward.


The format for this post is thanks to A Chronic Voice linkup. This month, the topics were Incorporating, Breathing, Smiling, Stopping, and Relishing. Each writer takes the given topics and gives them their own spin. Check out these wonderful writers at March 2021 Linkup (scroll past the prompts to find the linked up posts).



teal line drawn waterlily with teal lettering of the title and motto

4 thoughts on “Growth Mindset: A Teacher’s Approach to Healing Chronic Pain

  • March 12, 2021 at 1:25 pm
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    A sleep doctor (neurologist) advised me to get morning light too, and preferably with a little exercise too. So a short five minute walk. It hasn’t been as easy in lockdown for a few reasons, but when it’s possible again I will go back to it. Always easier in the summer when it’s not too cold first thing though!

    Reply
  • March 14, 2021 at 9:43 am
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    I like how you worked all the prompts together, Katie. I genuinely love breathing techniques because they can be so calming and it acts fast. But no alternate nose breathing for me. One of my fibro symptoms is stuffy nose and ears and I always feel stuffed up. I hope we hear the ukelele at least once! That is so cool.

    Reply
  • March 14, 2021 at 1:59 pm
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    Katie – that’s such a wonderful list of work that you’re doing on and for yourself! I love the breathing techniques you mentioned, and may need to give a few a try. I’ve been a little extra symptomatic lately and know that I need to calm my system down a bit. I’m so glad that you are recommecting with your happiness and I absolutely agree with you that a growth mindset is so important in so many ways! Sending hugs, and looking forward to talking and walking together soon!

    Reply

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