Navigating Pain & the Nervous System with the Beatles
Updated: May 17, 2020
In the post Everybody Hurts, we chatted about tendencies we have in reaction to our pain, and what it looks like to begin bringing comfort to ourselves when we’re hurting.
Because it is so counter-intuitive to be present with our pain vs. trying to ‘get rid of it,’ I would like to continue from a similar but slightly different angle. Let’s weave the nervous system into the conversation, and splash in a story from the Beatles. 😊
The Periodic Interference of the Nervous System when Trying to Find a Pathway to Comfort for Our Pain
It is not always as easy as it sounds to bring ourselves into a place where we can listen to our pain and receive comfort. If we are really going to get to a place where we can navigate pain and move toward well-being, we need to consider what we have learned about the nervous system. (If you have not read any of the earlier nervous system articles, it may be worth the time to do so now).
When our nervous system detects a threat, it responds with protective mechanisms of the sympathetic (fight or flight) or dorsal vagal (shutdown) systems. Our nervous system will take over and do everything it can to ‘get rid of’ the ‘predator.’ This, of course, makes sense when we are facing a wild animal, but what about when our nervous system mistakes emotional pain as an immediate, predator level threat?
Our nervous system may have come to associate emotional experiences like anger, frustration, confusion, or loneliness as cues of a bad thing coming. It may start to perceive the emotion itself as a ‘predator.’ It may then activate to assure we stay safe from that predator. The problem is that a reflexive protective response is intended to keep our body physically safe; it is not a response that is designed to resolve emotional pain.
When we experience emotional pain, we will become stuck if we remain in a protective response. Instead, we want to be able to access a higher level of awareness that will allow us to ‘hear’ and understand the messages carried in the pain. This necessary awareness is only available from the perspective of our ventral vagal (safe and sound) system.
If we are sad, for example, and begin reacting to our sadness as though it is going to harm us, we will not have any space to consider where the sadness is coming from, what it is about, or what would help it feel better. Rather than considering that we may be sad because we learned earlier in the day that our friend is relocating, and being able to share our feelings with a significant other, have a good cry, or bring comfort to the sadness by reminding ourselves that we can travel to see our friend, our nervous system may begin to panic. It may be panicking, not about our friend moving, but because we are sad. In the past, perhaps, sadness was associated with being told ‘big girls don’t cry.’ Instead of staying with our sadness, our nervous system activates a protective response. It says, ‘this sadness needs to go away. It is going to cause trouble.’ Our nervous system, then, carries us into a whole different state and set of concerns, rather than allowing us to stay with the original experience of sadness.
In order to access the pure awareness of the painful emotional state of ‘sad,’ what it is about, and how we want to respond to it, we have to first be ‘safe and sound.’ If we are having a reflexive protective response to pain, we want to become adept at identifying that this is happening, and assure we have pathways we can confidently take toward a ventral vagal (safe and sound) state. Once we are in a ventral vagal state, we can begin listening and responding to the messages of pain.
How do we get to a ventral vagal state if we are not already there?
We can access the perspective of our ventral vagal (safe and sound) system through a variety of pathways. In ‘Everybody Hurts,’ we considered how compassion, care and connection offered in the context of relationship with a trusted other can bring us into a space that allows us to ‘feel better’ and/or further reflect on our pain. It is lovely when we have access to relational support to help bring our nervous system to a place of safe and sound, but what about when our trusted others are not physically available to be with us? Or they do not have the awareness or skills to approach with compassion and acceptance instead of with counterproductive efforts to ‘fix us?’
Let’s consider a ventral vagal story from a fun source, The Beatles.
It is understood that the Beatles’ hit, ‘Let it Be’ was inspired by a dream Paul McCartney had during the distressing time leading up to the band’s split. In his dream, he saw his mother, Mary, come to him and comfort him through encouraging him to ‘Let it Be.’ He understood her words as suggesting that everything will be okay and that it was okay for him to just let the circumstances of life unfold. (To fully appreciate Paul’s experience, it is helpful to know that his mother passed from cancer when he was just 14 years old).
How lovely that well into his adult years, Paul continued to be positively impacted by the loving presence of his mother!
Paul created ‘Let it Be’ on the heels of this dream. It seems likely that the anxious, paranoid (sympathetic) state he noted experiencing in the day prior to the dream dissipated as his nervous system shifted toward safe and sound (ventral) through his mother’s comforting words. Once he was safe and sound, it seems he was better able to accept and face the challenges happening in the immediacy of his life, and return to creating music.
What does this story say about our own ability to access comfort through memory, dreams, or other internal resources
Our Imagination is a Wonderful Tool
Just like Paul, we can access ventral activity in our nervous system through memory, dreams, and imagination.
They say a picture is worth a 1000 words, but why?
When we ‘interact’ with a visualization, we are most often impacted at the level of experience, rather than merely cognition. Often times, when we fully enter into a visualization through our imagination, we pull in multiple aspects of our sensory experiences.
Let’s consider Paul’s experience.
Let’s imagine that Paul had met with a cognitive behavioral therapist. The therapist worked with Paul to identify the flawed thinking related to his anxious, paranoid state; they, then, identified resourced thinking that could replace the flawed thinking. They wrote out the new messages that Paul would rehearse whenever the flawed thinking came up in his mind.
Would Paul have been helped by the cognitive strategies?
I would say, it depends. In my opinion, it depends on whether the new, resourced thinking became attached to a new nervous system state.
The flawed thinking that would have been identified was attached to the power of an anxious, paranoid experience. If Paul was going to not just think better, but feel better, he would have needed access to an equally powerful, but positive state for his nervous system to shift into. If we only adjust his thinking, but leave his body in an anxious, paranoid state, Paul is left to try to combat an intense sympathetic (fight/ flight) state with merely a thought. Which do you suppose will win? The mind or the body?
So, what does this have to do with visualization?
When we bring up a positive visualization, our mind-body experience engages with the image. The engagement with the image produces, not just a thought, but an experience.
When Paul saw his mother in his dream, he did not just hear her words, but experienced her comfort through the visualization of interacting with her. He did not need to be physically present with her in the material world in order to access the benefits of her love and care.
Additionally, Paul received a particularly helpful resource of being encouraged to 'Let it be.' So often the events unfolding in life are somewhat outside of our control. In this context, we are most often helped by accepting what is happening, and honoring the feelings that go with the experience. The feelings will, then, move through us and allow us to carry on, rather than remaining stuck and unprocessed in our system.
How to Use Visualization to Get to Ventral
Visualization is super cool. There are many ways we can use it.
We can build Guided Imagery practices.
We can consider what it would feel like to be with a certain person and imagine a response they might offer us that would be helpful. Sometimes, merely imagining being with them can bring us to a place of calm, cared for, connected.
When we are distressed, we can imagine going to a safe place. We might have more than one. (A favorite childhood place, a favorite vacation spot, a place in nature, a cozy place in our home).
We can work with a coach or therapist to engage visualization to help us move from a reflexive, protective state to a ventral experience. Sometimes the direct work with someone guiding us can help us more readily find a pathway.
I’m In Ventral, Now What?
Once we are safe and sound, we can return to consideration of the feelings we originally experienced before nervous system activation occurred.
In the case of Paul, once he returned to safe and sound, he was able to continue working on the album that was previously creating distress for the Beatles. And, we can only imagine what else he may have been able to more readily face- the sadness of the band coming to a close; the uncertainty of a whole new personal and professional path; anger/ upset about conditions that surrounded the band’s end.
Once we’re in ventral, we can better reflect on the feelings we’re experiencing, the thoughts we’re having, and the needs that might go with these experiences.
Though the list below is incomplete and imperfect, consider how different emotional states may be offering us clues that we can use to help ourselves.
What are my thought-feeling states telling me?
When we are angry, we often experience thoughts about injustice, feeling wronged, or feeling misunderstood. (We might need to become assertive to address a situation, to ask for what we need, or to establish boundaries).
When we are sad, we might notice a longing for connection, a desire to feel confident, or a hope for becoming more of ourselves. (We might need to find a pathway for building new social connections, to develop a new perspective or understanding of our self, or to start some journaling).
When we are scared, we might notice our need for protection, or to not feel alone as we face a challenge. (We might desire a companion or some encouragement through a challenging or dark time).
When we are confused, there might be a desire for a guide or resource to provide a new understanding. (We might find this through seeking a mentor, counselor, doing a quick google, or reading a book).
When we are frustrated, we might need permission to take our time or slow down. Whatever is trying to be accomplished may be more easily accessed if we remove the time pressure from the situation. (We might need to talk to a boss, or partner to see if we can establish a timeline that feels more realistic... or acquire additional support to get a job done).
When we feel ashamed, we might need to be reminded of the difference between making a mistake, learning something new, and thinking of ourselves as terrible person. (We might choose to phone a friend to get some outside perspective, or just some caring words to reconnect a with a felt sense of having value).
In the upcoming week as you have various feeling experiences, notice what happens in your nervous system. Does it allow you to remain in a ventral vagal (safe and sound) state, or does it bring you into reflexive protective states?
If you get caught in a reflexive, protective state, are you able to use any of the visualization strategies to shift into a ventral state? (If visualization if not comfortable, consider trying some of the options listed on the ‘Calming Activities’ page).
Once you are in a ventral state, can you return to the original feeling you were experiencing?
Can you notice what the feeling seems to be attached to? What are the thoughts that go with it? Are there any specific things that this part of you seems to be desiring to help you feel better?
Perhaps, a quick listen to ‘Let it Be’ will send some ventral energy into your system.
Let It Be The Silver Beetles When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness She is standing right in front of me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. Let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. And when the broken hearted people Living in the world agree, There will be an answer, let it be. For though they may be parted there is Still a chance that they will see There will be an answer, let it be Let it be, let it be. Yeah There will be an answer, let it be. And when the night is cloudy, There is still a light that shines on me, Shine on until tomorrow, let it be. I wake up to the sound of music Mother Mary comes to me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. Let it be, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be. Let it be, let it be, Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. Source: Musixmatch Let It Be lyrics © Sony