Healing for Every Body

HaysOver the years I have come to appreciate that healing is not just about becoming pain free. The cardiologist, Dean Ornish, says it well:
“Curing is when the physical disease gets measurably better. Healing is a process of becoming whole. Even the words heal, whole, and holy come from the same root. . . . In the process of healing, you reach a place of wholeness and deep inner peace from which you can deal with illness with much less fear and suffering and much greater clarity and compassion. While curing is wonderful when it occurs, healing is often more meaningful because it takes you to a place of greater freedom from suffering.”

Often when people heal on an emotional and spiritual level, they experience greater physical health, but this is not guaranteed and it isn’t always perfect. For example, when I’m stressed my nervous system still gets ramped up, my pelvic muscles go into a spasm and my bladder hurts. My body has experienced this pattern of pain and dysfunction for almost eight years, and it definitely knows how to get back there. But even though I occasionally feel pain, healing has changed how I experience it. Pain no longer defines me or throws me into despair, and even though I am physically uncomfortable sometimes I suffer so much less.

Healing is even possible when a physical condition gets worse. I watched this happen with my mother as she struggled with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) for seven years. On one of our last visits, I moved her paralyzed and bony frame up in bed and was shocked by frail she was because when you were with her it never seemed that bad. Perhaps this was denial on my part, but when I asked her friends and my family we all had the same experience. As my mother listened intently, savored her food, and watched the birds with delight, she was more alive than most of us with functioning bodies. She was fully present and this light of hers truly blinded one to the state of her body. As my mother was dying, she was healing.

In my second flare up of pain after being pain free for almost a year, I was completely discouraged. I was sitting in church when the speaker said, “You can be beaten down only to get up and be beaten down again. But while you are down there, only you can stop your heart from lifting.” For me this was so true. Healing was an active process of releasing resistance and letting more love and light flow within me. Rest assured that no matter where you are on the continuum of physical health, this type of healing is always an option.

photo by: Adrienne Hayes

How to Calm the Nervous System

DSCN5285Calming the Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system provides the body’s relaxation response and contains the hormones oxytocin, dopamine, and the endorphins. It is postulated that when the nervous system is relaxed, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms flip on. Some activities that have been shown in the literature to activate the parasympathetic side of the nervous system include: meditation, massage, yoga, tai chi, creativity, friends, work you love, laughing, exercising, and playing with animals.

Joyful Activities
Consider what activities bring you joy, as this bumps up your endorphins and helps to calm the nervous system. I found that it wasn’t just the activity I chose, it was my mindset during the activity that made all the difference. Tuning into the body’s response during an activity is the easiest way to determine if an activity is a healing avenue for you.

Just like there are many ways to activate the relaxed, joyful side of the nervous system, we each have different avenues that help us turn down the volume of our spinning minds. Several of my caregivers encouraged me to focus on one thing like the flame of a candle or a repeated phrase and to let the thoughts pass through without paying attention to them. Many people find these activities useful, but my mind was just too active. My thoughts were like children bursting into my mind, clamoring for attention, and bouncing off of each other with excitement. Occasionally, I could get my thoughts to come in and leave quietly, but then my body would speak up. My ramped up nervous system and tense muscles were giving my mind the message that it wasn’t safe and that the system was poised to run or fight at any moment.

Because my body and mind were conspiring for my survival, I needed to quiet both of them down at once. When I focused on the sensations of my body and breath and consciously moved them to a relaxed state, my mind moved out of stress-causing mental loops, and my body got the sensation that it was safe. For me, Hatha yoga, diaphragmatic breathing and progressive relaxation meditation were the most helpful in calming both my body and my mind.

Hatha Yoga
There are many types of hatha yoga and the experience will be different with each instructor. If your aim is to calm the body-mind, I suggest a non-stressful flow of poses and a non-competitive, peaceful environment with good breathing cues. When I close my eyes and focus on my breath and body sense, yoga becomes a calming, moving meditation.

Diaphragmatic Breathing
At the beginning of my illness, in the peak of pain, I was stopped at a light when I realized that I was breathing deeply with my diaphragm, which is the large, dome-shaped muscle that attaches to the lower ribs and spine and separates the chest from the abdominal cavity. When the diaphragm contracts, it flattens and moves downward, which squishes the abdominal contents and moves them outward.

When I told my physical therapist that I was automatically breathing with my diaphragm when my pain levels were high, she encouraged me to continue saying that this type of breathing is not only calming for the nervous system, it also automatically relaxes the pelvic floor muscles. So I began focusing on the rise of my belly with each breath when I was lying on my back or sitting in a chair with my feet flat on the ground.

Just recently, it occurred to me that breathing is not a conscious activity. So I let out all my air and then I just waited in a quiet state and soon my body took a big breath automatically. I allowed the exhalation without forcing it, and then I waited again for my body to breathe me. When I gave up control and just allowed the breath to happen, it felt less like an exercise and more like a meditation. Both me and my clients find this type of breathing to be highly effective in calming the body and mind.

Progressive Relaxation
I began practicing this type of progressive relaxation meditation at the beginning of my pelvic pain. I would focus on a body part, feel the tension, consciously try to let go, and then accept whatever tension remains. At first, I did this in sequence scanning all the areas from my feet to the top of my head or in reverse. But then over the years, I learned to scan my body and to focus on relaxing just the tense areas.

As the awareness of my body grew, I stopped directing this activity, and instead I would just lie in a quiet state with the intention of letting go any tension in my body that I was carrying. I would then just feel my body’s automatic responses, and as my body calmed down I often felt my muscles relax and the structure of my body adjust, and sometimes I would feel tingling in different areas, and increased digestion sounds.

Light Touch/ Massage
When I’m working with clients, certain physical techniques are effective in calming the body. Gentle rocking type motions of different body areas like the leg or the spine seem to decrease patterns of holding in the muscles and the area relaxes. Light touch and gentle stroking both sides of the spine starting at the head and travelling slowly down to where the spine meets the sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of the spine) can also help someone sink into relaxation.

Many of us have classic spots in the body that get tense when we are stressed, and when palpated these areas may feel ropy, knotty, tight or tender. When my nervous system is ramped up, it often comes with increased tension in my calves, buttocks (both superficial and deep muscles), the muscles on either side of the spine, the muscles at the top of the neck where it attaches to the head, and the deep muscles at the temporal-mandibular joint located near the earlobes where the jaw attaches to the skull. Learning how to find these spots helps reconnect you to your own body and to become aware of when you are stressed, and learning to care for your body in this way is empowering.

Deep massage or sustained pressure to the affected areas also seems to calm the whole nervous system. I often apply pressure using my fingers or other tools such as a small ball or foam roller. At first, I saw a massage therapist for this work, but over the years and with some instruction, I learned to find the spots myself and treat them. Some of my clients have a loved one care for them in this way. This is great when the areas are hard to reach, and it gives a partner something to do to help when you are in pain. When this care is done with love, the person receiving the treatment often feels safe and this can be calming in its own right.

Beyond the Medical Model

During a recent webinar focusing on the multi-dimensional nature of pain, the presenter suggested that many chronic conditions may be “autoimmune” in nature, and I felt myself recoiling a bit. I had been taught that in these conditions the immune system, which protects us from disease and infection, attacks the healthy cells in the body by mistake. When I was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, I would occasionally hear the condition described as a possible autoimmune disorder, and the idea that my body was self-destructing made me feel helpless and fearful.

Over the years I gradually came to appreciate that this description of what is happening in the body is not the absolute truth, but rather one perspective from Western medicine. In the Middle Ages, the study of the body was separated from the investigation of the mind and considerations of the spirit, and medical science grew out of the need to fight off infection. The definition of an autoimmune disorder is a good example of this focused perspective. Symptoms are a direct reflection of mistakes made by the immune system, and the purpose of this system is to protect the body from invasion.

Over the healing years I had many experiences that challenged this perspective and broadened my view of the body from a machine to an intelligent organism. I began to appreciate that my body’s symptoms often reflected what was happening in my mind and spirit too, and sometimes my symptoms were directly related to my beliefs, thought patterns and emotional state. I began to appreciate that my body was not creating problems or attacking me. It was always trying to do its best to survive even when it got stuck in fearful and non-productive patterns. My body was never the enemy, but sometimes it needed help.

Challenging our perspectives about the body can change our beliefs about our illness and alter how we go about helping ourselves to heal. For example, in the case of an autoimmune disorder, the body could be seen as a machine that is attacking itself or as a protector whose responses are in a state of heightened alert. With this second perspective, instead of feeling helpless and afraid, we are empowered and encouraged to find ways to calm and support the body and to give the mind messages that it is safe.

It is true that we are definitely biological beings and the body often benefits from medical intervention. This singular focus has lead to vast knowledge of the body and advancement in medicine. Perhaps we are now ready to recombine this knowledge with an appreciation of our holistic nature. With this new mindset, we can learn to use the connection between our body, mind and spirit to help us heal on all levels.

The Fear Factor


Kate came into my office in despair. She had suffered with sciatica for several months and she had just seen her MRI which showed a mild lumbar spine disc bulge and some pressure on the nerve root. She was worried that the pain would be there for the rest of her life or she would need surgery in order to get better.

Kate is not alone; many of the people I see in pain are frightened about the diagnosis they have received or by the scans they have been shown. This was my experience too, and remember being stunned and afraid when I saw my cervical disc bulges on MRI and when I was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis.

Kate visibly relaxed when I told her that the level of pain is not always directly related to the  severity of the structural problem in the body. As a physical therapist I have heard stories of clients with scary MRIs that are pain free, and others with just mild issues on the scan who are experiencing major pain. There is also evidence that physical signs on Xray and MRI are not directly related to the onset, duration severity or prognosis of low back pain.

To her surprise, Kate was pain free during yoga, meditation and after our session of holistic bodywork.  I too was surprised when I was pain free during yoga class at the start of my chronic pelvic pain condition. For both of us, the physical condition didn’t fully resolve during these therapies, but the pain decreased and this made us wonder if there was something more to our pain than a physical issue.

While we may have physical problems, pain is transmitted by the nervous system and is interpreted in the brain, and there are many factors related to whether these signals are transmitted. Studies on pain perception from the neuroscientist, Lorimer Moseley suggest that the level of pain experienced by a person may be directly related to the perceived threat of the stimulus. The brain receives all types of inputs and it filters out those that it deems crucial for survival, and when an input is considered threatening we may experience it as pain.

This theory matched my personal experience.  It has been eight years since my chronic pelvic pain began, and even though I am pain free on most days, my bladder pain and pelvic floor spasms rear up occasionally. Even though I have the same symptoms, I am now much less fearful  and can remain calmer in the storm. With this mindset, the condition seems to resolve more quickly, and the same symptoms are not as bothersome. When I worked to heal from my chronic neck pain, I attributed my decrease in pain to my physical therapy and home program and changes at the body level. And while this is true, I can now see how the resolution of my pain was related to mental/emotional factors too.  Finding therapists I trusted and actively working to recover gave me a sense of empowerment, and this decreased my fear. During both of my bouts with chronic pain, there seemed to be a direct feedback loop between my level of fear and the level of pain I experienced.


My Top Pain Management Strategies








For those with chronic pelvic pain…here are the top six ways I manage my pain condition and deal with flare-ups when they occur:
1. Myofascial release techniques to affected areas in physical therapy and on my own.
2. Meditative activities that focus on the body such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive relaxation meditation and yoga.
3. Reiki/ energy work: Treatment from therapists and on my own every day.
4. Introspection: Acknowledging my stress and looking within to determine thoughts/behaviors/emotions that may be contributing to a ramp up of my nervous system.
5. Singing (without restraint): This activity releases emotion and diaphragmatic breathing relaxes the pelvic floor muscles.
6. Activities that bring joy. For me this is visiting with friends, sitting at the ocean, and petting the neighborhood cat.

Breaking the Stress Link


IC/PBS can create pain and inflammation in the bladder, and stress can be a big factor in creating this inflammation.

The human body reacts to stress by pumping adrenaline and then cortisol into the bloodstream to focus the mind and body for immediate action. This amazing response has ensured our survival throughout the ages.

Cortisol in small doses is very helpful, and it turns off the inflammatory response. But when the stress is prolonged and the cells are exposed to a relentless stream of cortisol, they can become desensitized to the hormone. This can create excessive inflammation in the body.

 Consider these ways to break the link between stress, inflammation and pain:

  1. Eat wholesome, anti-inflammatory foods and consider adding fish-oil and supplements to your diet.
  2. When it possible, limit your exposure to situations and people that ramp up your stress.
  3. Look within and consider what thought patterns and emotions might be increasing your stress and try to change them in a positive direction.
  4. Release stress through exercise. When you are hurting, consider low impact activities such as swimming and walking.
  5. Find ways to turn on the parasympathetic/relaxed mode of your nervous system. Consider some of these activities that have been supported by research: meditation, creativity, massage, yoga, tai chi, friends, work you love, laughing, exercising, and playing with animals.

Photo by: Jacqueline Meltcher Baker

Navy Seal Demonstrates “Unwinding”

This Navy Seal and I did not know that the body had an innate capability to spontaneous release in this way until we experienced it ourselves. This physical response can also be accompanied by a release of emotion or recollections of past experiences/traumas. My CranioSacral therapist, Karen Axelrod CMT, D-CST, sent me this link and told me that the movements demonstrated in this video mimicked how my body moved during our treatment sessions. These spontaneous movements are often called “unwinding” and they can take many different forms. When my pain condition ramps up- moving in this way calms my nervous system, relaxes the muscles throughout my pelvic area and legs, and decreases my pain.

Everything Strange Is Not Pathology

A few years ago, I joined a discussion group that shared information that pertained to reality beyond what one could pick up with the five senses. People brought in information from science, religion and personal experience, so one week I shared my experience with spontaneous movements often referred to as “unwinding”. (See “unwinding” blog post for a description).

When I finished speaking, a woman frowned at me and said, “A few years ago, whenever I saw pizza it smelled like popcorn. I went to the doctor and found out I had a brain tumor.”
“Are you suggesting I get an MRI?” I asked.

I understood this woman’s viewpoint, because before my illness I would have written off many of my experiences as an alteration in the brain due to the chronic pain, depression, or the side effect of some medication. I still don’t have concrete explanations for these happenings. But for me they are real and related to my personal healing, and not just a sign of pathology.

After one doctor heard about some of my experiences, she commented that it was important to first rule out that the changes weren’t happening because of some disease process, and then you could entertain that it was related to something more.

Over the years, these happenings gradually shifted my perspective and I began to accept them as real, meaningful and related to my healing. I learned that everything strange is not pathology.


DSCN5392It all began eighteen months into my illness during an acupuncture session. After lying there for about fifteen minutes, I felt tingling in my left foot, which then progressed up my left leg. Slowly and spontaneously, my chin started to tuck and my neck elongated. It felt like my head was being gently pulled away from my body. I wasn’t moving this way consciously; it was just happening to me. I could stop the movement at any time, but if I relaxed, it continued. It is an understatement to say that this was a really strange experience, but I wasn’t afraid and didn’t resist. The movement felt just like the cervical traction I had undergone to alleviate the pain of previous neck injuries, and that familiarity was comforting to me. It was also easier for me to accept because it was happening in response to acupuncture, and I knew that this type of treatment had been healing for me in the past.

A few days later, I woke up one morning and my neck began moving just like it had during the acupuncture session. Then, every day for a full month, right when I woke up or right before I fell asleep, my body would spontaneously move with new movements being added to the repertoire. The pattern of muscle activation and the timing were always different. Sometimes, there would be long-held postures; other times, slow or fast oscillations would occur. At first, the movements happened only when I was relaxed in bed. But after a while, my entire body would move spontaneously whenever I allowed it and in any position, even standing.

When I showed the movements to my doctors, they said they had never seen motions like that before. They told me it was obvious the movements were not in my conscious control, but they didn’t think they were pathological. The movements seemed to be related to healing because my overall discomfort lessened as soon as these movements began.The movements seemed to calm my nervous system and release the tension in the muscles and tissues of my body. On several occasions, my body went into its spontaneous movement while my physical therapist was working on a stiff/inflexible area of my body, and the area she was working on completely softened and felt like normal tissue.

Both of my doctors hypothesized that these movements might be a way my body was releasing tension and trying to heal itself. The movements seemed to be related to moving or releasing energy, because once the movement stopped, I would feel light tingling throughout my body, similar to how I felt during other energy work, like acupuncture and Reiki.

Later, when I took courses for the complementary treatments, CranioSacral Therapy and Myofascial Release, I witnessing many people moving in a similar way and found out that these types of movements are sometimes referred to as “unwinding”. I have also met other people who experienced these movements without having prior knowledge of them. Just like me, their movements were not directly linked to belief, group dynamics or the power of suggestion.

This was one of the most surprising experiences on my journey to health, and it helped me appreciate the natural, self-healing potential of the body. I also learned that not everything  weird is pathology!

The Nervous System Link

1069149_542842402443143_483982884_nInterstitial cystitis often coexists and overlaps with other syndromes such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and irritable bowel syndrome. A new study in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology suggests that an overactive sympathetic nervous system may be the common factor linking these conditions. The study reviewed 196 published, case-control studies that investigated the performance of the sympathetic nervous system in people with these conditions. The common methods used to evaluate sympathetic function included: heart rate variability analysis, sympathetic skin response, tilt table testing and genetic studies. A majority of the studies (65%) described sympathetic nervous system predominance, providing some evidence to support this factor as a possible reason for why these syndromes often occur together.

Heightened activity of the sympathetic nervous system was a key factor in my condition, and I directly experienced the connection between my nervous system ramp up and my physical symptoms (pelvic floor muscle spasms and bladder pain). Treatments like yoga, meditation, deep breathing, walking in nature, and CranioSacral therapy helped to calm my nervous system and decrease my pain. I also worked for years with a therapist and uncovered unconscious trauma, beliefs and thought patterns that may have heightened my sense of threat and put my nervous system on high alert.

Over the years, my body gradually calmed down, and I am currently pain-free on most days without medications. Now, my body no longer screams in pain when it is stressed. It whispers and I listen.

(Photo by Mariane Gabriel)