- Jean Jordan
3 Healing Powers in Nature to Rewire your Chronic Pain Brain
After the success of my blog "Can nature soothe your chronic pain?” it reminded me to follow my own advice. To get away from my computer and to do some research of my own, to spend time in nature hoping to find treatment clues to help people with chronic pain.
Whether chronic pain is caused by an accident, surgery, past trauma or the unfortunate problem of what is given the label of "nociplastic pain" when you or your family member are told that no reason can be found for your chronic pain or the continuation of your pain cannot be fully explained.
What follows in this article is the result of my research in Hagley Park - tough job, especially on a sunny day, but someone has to do it!
What I found was surprising, not the just physical benefits of my noticing but, more importantly the neurological benefits. By this I mean getting our brains working and start to rewire our neural networks to reduce chronic pain. This process is often referred to as cognition, something that is not often discussed with chronic pain patients but is an important part of finding answers for your chronic pain.
Progress is being made to understand that the development of neural networks can cause pain to persist. If you like, there is a continual 'pain record' playing in your brain, reminiscent of hearing that catchy jiggle on the TV that goes around and around in your head all day long!
What I found on my walk in Hagley Park were ideas and ways for chronic pain clients to start to play a different record.
Below are three ideas to calm that neural network and attempt to rewire your brain.
3 Ideas To Rewire Your Brain To Change Chronic Pain.
It's known that being in nature can benefit physical and mental health; in my Hagley Park practical research I found there is much more to green exercise than just doing exercise outdoors (Pretty 2003).
So, I put on my walking shoes and went walking in my local park in Christchurch.
"Let's start to rewire your brain.”
Brain Rewire Activity #1
Walk On An Uneven Surface.
This means get off the path. The picture below shows we've recently had our path tarmacked and upgraded. Therefore, when we take our green exercise, we walk on a smooth man-made path.
Research has shown that walking improves creativity (Oppezzo, 2014), even walking indoors. It's also the effect of more fully engaging or, an expression I like to use, switching on your brain, effectively setting those neurons firing!
Now here's a new tarmac path in Hagley Park, not only wider but cleaner and smoother.
If you chose the flat easy walk can I suggest there are brain reasons to walk on an uneven path?
You have to pay attention, especially to those tree roots or ruts in the path that need to be navigated, making you engage your brain.
Your brain will actually have to feel and adjust to the variance in the ground in a more active role than walking on smooth tarmac - just think about the four-wheel-drive on the road versus on a country track.
You need to vary your stride pattern, shorten, lengthen, stepping over tree roots or rocks.
Moving as above constantly requires more flexing of your hips and a constant change in knee posture, hence your brain constantly needs to send messages to your muscles.
All this extra body movement is great for chronic pain relief and again research has shown that physical effort made in green exercise is perceived as less than using the same amount of energy training in the gym indoors. At the same time Holowka (2022) found walking on uneven ground requires more whole of body engagement, leaning forward, balance and leg and hip flexing - so much for your brain to focus on!
Choose The Best Path For Your Brain Neuroplasticity?
For those who use walking as a self-treatment for chronic pain, it could be worth changing from a flat paved surface to an uneven surface for some of your regular exercise. Irregular surfaces need more focus and concentration, together with physical adjustment that your brain automatically does without your awareness.
If your brain is figuring out how to move, it’s not thinking about your chronic pain.
"It is this variability of actions, especially new or novel, at least different from the way that we normally act that promotes the growth of neural networks and neuroplasticity." (Voss, 2017)
Brain Re-wire Activity #2
Breath and Breathing while Walking
The most essential part of our health, in fact living, gets very little of our attention
- BREATH & BREATHING
Interestingly breathing is essential, automatic until we have problems. Bit like our car that keeps going, until it doesn't! We take both for granted.
A walk in the outdoors is an opportunity to get in touch with your breath, take notice of what breathing actually feels like. Notice your breath, any bad habits you may have.
In our daily rush and dash we pay little attention, sometimes oblivious to such breathing challenges that can happen in everyday situations.
o Rapid breathing, with every breath chasing the one before it.
o Shallow breaths, moving a small part of our upper body and lungs.
o Breathing with your shoulders - not your ribcage and diaphragm, causing shoulder and neck pain.
o Holding your breath - breath holding can accompany chronic pain, along with guarding and tense muscles.
o You may notice some other poor breathing habits you have - walk them out in the park!
Inhale smells the aroma in your green space. This may vary depending on your park, or garden or surroundings. Perhaps something for a later blog - aromatherapy.
Breathing And The Brain
I did find information suggesting that breathing in cool air through our nostrils, reached our prefrontal cortex, providing cooling to our brain. Not too sure about this? But there is a suggestion that how we breathe affects our brain - that's something I need to explore in the future blogs.
Take action the next time you're out for a walk or on your way to work. Talk your way through your breathing.
With your exhale, relax and lower shoulders. And don't forget to throw in a smile too!
Chronic Pain Relief - Relaxed Breathing, Meditation, Mindfulness
Relaxing breathing is one of the self help activity I use with my clients. If you want to listen to the sound of my voice and watch relaxing calming breath videos - find on free resources page
Brain Re-wire Activity #3
Curiosity Stimulates your Brain
Have you ever wondered why information someone gives you, feeds you, often doesn't stay around for long if at all. The level to which you retain this information may depend on how your brain processes the type of information you were given. Sometimes our preference is for visual images or diagrams or perhaps a lecture that you listen to would suit you better and be more effective for remembering long-term.
Being Curious Walking in Hagley Park
What if you could find the information for yourself either researching the facts and the information perhaps from a book or online from Google? Or perhaps you take something to pieces to figure out how it works? Often these methods are more memorable, than in the paragraph above because you're discovering the information for yourself.
These methods could be a higher level of engaging your brain in such a way that it works better, stores the information away and then recalls and remembers it?
I hope you agree that in the second paragraph, doing something, we learn more effectively because we're engaging our brains more.
So what if this higher level of engaging the brain is more than just searching for information on a particular topic but actually wondering, why or how something is so?
This wondering, or intrinsic curiosity means we are seeing something and wondering why it is as it is. Wondering why is good for your brain. This intrinsic curiosity causes increased activity in the midbrain and hippocampus prompting us not only to learn but also to remember.
Look Around, Stop and Wonder - Neuroplasticity?
If you stimulate your curiosity while you are walking in the park and also other times during the day you begin to wonder - why, or how - switches on the brain's neural circuitry. And at the same time having a very powerful effect on the brain so it cannot keep its focus on those chronic pain neural connections I mentioned at the being of this blog. These chronic pain neural networks that built up over the time you've been living with chronic pain.
Dopamine, the reward chemical, in the brain is involved with this intrinsic curiosity, by increasing motivation and the novelty aspect. (Lisman et al) We rarely think how effortlessly it is to learn something that really interests us, but no way are we able to remember the boring information even with an extrinsic or external carrot or stick to encourage us to learn.
Gruber (2014) found that:
"curiosity had large and long lasting effects on memory for interesting information" page 493
If we indulge ourselves in curiosity, it can have a positive effect on our brain. Who would have thought that curiosity about our surroundings as simple as wondering why the ‘tiling’ effect on the pine trees, the 'barkprints'!
Gruber MJ, Gelman BD, Ranganath C. States of Curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron. 2014 Oct 22;84(2):486-96.
Holowka, N., Kraft, T., Wallace, I., Gurven, M., & Venkataraman, V. (2022). Forest terrains influence walking kinematics among indigenous Tsimane of the Bolivian Amazon. Evolutionary Human Sciences,4, E19. doi:10.1017/ehs.2022.13
Lisman J, Grace AA, Duzel E. A neoHebbian framework for episodic memory; role of dopamine-dependent late LTP. Terns Neurosci. 2011 Oct;34(10):536-47.
Oppezzo M, Schwartz DL. Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2014 Jul;40(4):1142-52.
Pretty J, Griffin M, Sellens M, et al. Green exercise: complementary roles of nature, exercise and diet in physical and emotional well-being and implications for public health policy. CES occasional paper 2003-1, University of Essex. 2003.
Voss P, Thomas ME, Cisneros-Franco JM, de Villers-Sidani É. Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery. Front Psychol. 2017 Oct 4;8:1657.
Want to find simple effective ways to begin to break down those pain neural networks? This is where I can help! Ideas can be found in the articles on my website. You can sign-up to regular updates or spend time using some of the collection of self-help techniques. After over 20 years of having my own pain clinics pain I started Natural Pain Solutions online business to reach more people, rather than one person at a time. Therefore when I completed my postgraduate pain management studies I wanted to spread the word about holistic self-help techniques that people can use at home. Learn more about me here.