When we are young, we are taught the ways of the modern western world - a rock is a rock, it's just a rock.
In school, we are taught about science; chemistry, physics, and biology. In biology we are taught about our physical bodies, in physics, we are taught about atoms and molecules, and in chemistry, we are taught about the periodic table. In Physical Education we are taught about our bodies again, about being healthy, about the 'healthy eating' pyramid and that is our education...pretty much. 13 years of schooling and not one class dedicated to human emotions, the complexities of the human body, and how intrinsically connected our emotions are to our physical state.
Yes, you may go more deeply into the human mind if you take a psychology class, learning about Sigmund Freud's model of the psyche - the 'id', the 'super ego', and the 'ego' - but still, nothing in that class will mention the mind body connection in depth.
A little on the mind body connection...
"Happier thoughts lead to essentially a happier biochemistry. A happier, healthier body." Dr John Hagelin
My whole life and I'm sure yours as well, I have always thought the body is separate to the mind. The body is the body, and the mind is the mind, and yes they make the person a whole, but they are separate because that's what we are taught.
In western medicine, we have General Practitioners, who 'generally' tackle the smalls stuff and have a 'general' knowledge of medicine. If you go to them with something outside of their scope, you go to a specialist. I've always thought it funny growing up - then later extremely frustrating at the beginning of my pelvic pain journey, that we in the western world have divided the body into parts. Your stomach hurts you see a Gastroenterologist, your bladder hurts you see a Urologist, your vagina hurts you get sent to a Gynecologist. We don't see the body as a whole system working together, just like we don't see the body and mind as a whole system working together. We even send you to a Psychologist if you feel sad, to tackle the mind stuff. Again, we don't see the mind and body as a whole - one whole person, all systems working together, affecting one another all the time.
It's taken me over 12 years to discover and learn how important the mind body connection is. 12 years of chasing symptoms, from specialist to specialist, chasing symptoms not seeing the connection.
Now I do see the connection, and boy does it literally blow my mind how important the education on how our emotions affect the body is. More importantly how you feel (emotions) can affect your pelvic pain, any chronic pain (body).
None of what I'm talking about is new, we know intuitively from a young age that a physical change in our body can cause an emotional change. We fall down and hurt our knee we feel physical pain, which causes our emotional state to change from happy to sad. When we get older we start exploring sex - we feel love or lust, feel arousal, and changes happen to our bodies.
What's important here is that we know the mind and body are intrinsically linked. What is interesting and confusing for so many is why chronic pain and chronic pelvic pain can linger, increase, change or spread depending on our emotional state. To answer this we need to look at pain first.
The science behind pain
Pain is there to protect us, it's not fun but it does a really good job of telling us when something isn't right. You twist your ankle, you hurt, you take note, may strap it, and walk tenderly on it for a while until it's better. There you go - pain has done its job.
The problem is pain doesn't always get it right and can be too over protective. Tight pelvic floor muscles can cause burning pain, stinging pain and can lead to chronic pelvic pain - Vulvodynia. Why they are tight in the first place, is a hard question to answer, why the pain becomes chronic is another hard one to explain but it's our bodies way of saying "hey, something isn't right here." (whether that be emotionally or physically is a whole different blog post).
One of my favourite people is Dr Lorimer Moseley who is a Pain Scientist in South Australia. His explanation of pain is something that changed the game for me when it came to my pelvic pain and understanding it a little more.
What I've come to learn is that chronic pelvic pain can be an overactive pain system sending signals to the brain that something isn't right when there isn't. Why? Because like Dr Lorimer Moseley explains...
“Pain 100% of the time comes from the brain.“
Your brain gets a signal that something is wrong, your brain then assesses the situation, takes into account where you are and if you've been here before, then determines how much pain to dish out. Those signals can get it a lot wrong.
The problem is when pelvic pain becomes chronic there is another layer added - what I like to call 'the emotional trauma of the trauma of pelvic pain.' Now your limbic system which controls our emotions, our survival instincts becomes involved. You feel depressed 'will this ever go away?,' stressed about the discomfort, how much it impacts your life and you can go into full on survival mode where your amygdala (the oldest part of the brain) is screaming at you all the awful things:
"I'll never be better!"
"I'll never have good sex again"
"Why is this happening now?"
"I'll never wear the clothes I want again!"
"I'll never be able to eat normally again!"
”Why do I hurt so much?”
”I hate my body!”
”I hate being a woman!”
”I can’t live like this!”
"I'll never get a partner, who will want me!"
"I'm damaged goods"
"I hate my life"
“I can’t go on”
Does this catastrophising sound familiar? That amygdala is a bitch. She can really get to you. She is anxiety at her best.
Then what happens? Your pain can increase because your chemistry in your body has changed; neurons are firing, your heart rate goes up, you're crying, screaming into a pillow, you're literally in fight or flight mode - survival mode, fear mode. That fear fuels the fire. It fuels the chemical changes in your body which can heighten your pain signals to your brain. You're scared, in pain and you feel there is no way out of the darkness. This is the loop we get stuck on when we have chronic pelvic pain. Believe me, I've lived that loop for too long.
Pelvic pain and repair mode
Getting stuck on the chronic pelvic pain loop is scary and I still have fears I face every day, but our emotions are wide and varied and we can use them to get better, to turn down the pain signals to our brain - to get off the pelvic pain loop.
When we sleep we are in rest and repair mode, we heal when we are asleep. Whilst sleeping all the time isn't practical, finding ways to calm our central nervous system (which is in survival mode), while we are awake will help to decrease and massively improve pelvic pain, any chronic pain.
For me there are a few things I do to help calm my nervous system:
I fill my head with knowledge and read as much as my children will let me
I exercise in a safe way, so not to alarm my touchy amygdala, she can be so over the top!
I see a Psychologist
I rest when I feel like it
I take pain medication if I'm really in pain (and that is ok!)
I immerse myself in the present moment, or on a task, like cooking
I talk to friends about how I'm feeling
I sit in my garden and look at the trees or the sky
I meditate (yes, I said it again)! And try to carry those elevated emotions of love, happiness, and gratitude throughout the whole day. It's hard but that's why they call it 'practice'
Now back to that rock I spoke about at the beginning of this blog post. Do you remember? I said...
“A rock is a rock - it's just a rock.”
We don't see the rock for what it's made up of, and if we really break it down its atoms and molecules in the rock formation. If we break down you or myself, we are just more complex versions of atoms and molecules. Why is this relevant? Because we are all just made up of the same thing - energy and matter. If we can change our energy (our emotional state), we can change matter (our physical state).
“Your thoughts are incredibly powerful. Choose yours wisely.“ Dr Joe Dispenza
Healing pelvic pain or any kind of chronic pain isn't easy but understanding it can be another piece to the puzzle. Everyone's journey and everyone's pain is different, but I know that we can all heal if we literally put our minds to it.
I know that's the healing journey I'm on.