Colored synapses lit up

Pain Signals and What We Can Do To Change Them

Colored synapses lit up

 Let’s be blunt. Pain sucks. It really sucks. It interferes with every aspect of a person’s life, and it affects others around us. So, what is pain?  

Our body has “danger detectors” called nociceptors that send messages through nerve roots to the spinal cord, which, in turn, decides to send or not send messages, or to alter and not send all messages to the brain. The brain reads and processes these messages, compares it with our emotions, thoughts, expectations, beliefs, memories and past experiences, etc. and decides if we are really in danger or not.[1] It relays its decision back to the spinal cord, which carries out orders to either set off the danger alarm by turning on or up the volume of pain or to let the body know all is well by inhibiting pain. The brain protects us from danger by sending pain signals and creating pain. Much of this happens quickly and without our conscious awareness.

When Pain Signals Persist

When danger stops, but our fear of pain continues, we remain hypervigilant and on guard, and our brain maintains high alert, sending pain signals to continue protecting us from further harm, even though we are no longer in danger. Overtime, if our brain continues to perceive that we in danger and continues to create pain, the brain starts rewiring. When pain signals chronically over-fire, neural pathways are established that remain intact long after a body has healed from an injury. 

Pain becomes a pattern, or a habit, of the brain even if the danger eventually stops, leading to overstimulated nerves and generalized hypersensitivity. 

Even the smallest touch, sensation, or a memory can be linked to feeling pain. David Hanscom (2016) relates an example of this when he discusses the story of a war veteran. Although his physical injuries had been healed for some time, every time he heard a helicopter, anguishing, physical pain would return at the place of his previous injury.2

Over-firing of pain signals may occur without apparent injury or cause. If you experience pain that has no definable cause and someone tells you the pain is “all in your head”, tell them they are correct, for the brain creates pain, and feeling it is not something you are making up. Danger does not necessarily mean an injury or illness. Emotions, such as anger or depression, negative thoughts, beliefs, lifestyle and life stressors can be interpreted by the brain as dangerous, and the brain is sending signals to the body that it perceives a threat and turns it into pain.

Fight, Flight, or Shutdown

 People who tend to be emotionally “sensitive” and empathic often are more inclined to experience chronic pain and autoimmune disorders. This is also true for people who have experienced some form of trauma in their life. Additionally, those who demonstrate greater anger and emotional distress in relation to their pain, tend to develop or experience higher levels of pain. Whether chronic pain has developed from physical or emotional trauma or an unknown cause, it is well documented that negative emotions exacerbate physical pain. 

Chronic pain signals trigger a continual fight or flight reaction, inducing chronic hyper-arousal of the mind and body and can lead to being withdrawn, depressed, and shutdown because it is too much to mentally, emotionally, physiologically handle.  Chronic pain easily leads to habitual fear of pain, avoidance behaviors, depression, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.  

Living with pain is like living with a blaring alarm clock constantly going off in your head. It disrupts the ability to think, to act, and to calm oneself. The hyperarousal I have felt from pain, often caused me anxiety, which caused more hyperarousal and pain, creating a vicious feedback loop. I could even feel my brain changing, in which I could not think as clearly, my memory was poor, my hearing became hypersensitive, I became hypersensitive to foods and my digestion was poor, I developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and allergies became heightened, such as a gluten allergy turning into Celiac Disease. Pain can affect us on all levels.

But wait, there is Hope! 

We can play a huge part in modulating pain signals.

Much of that hope comes from realizing that a HUGE part of healing comes from within. Just as psychosocial factors, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and our perceptions and expectations can all turn up pain signals and pain intensity, they can also turn down pain signals and intensity. Research suggests that a part of the brain called the amygdala, plays a large part in the connection between pain and emotions, as well as anxious behavior. The amygdala “…plays a key role in emotional modulation of pain….the amygdala appears to be involved in the enhancement (hyperalgesia), as well as in the reduction or inhibition (hypoalgesia/analgesia) of pain signals.”[2]

What is Your Self-Recovery Plan?

Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief that s/he can succeed at something. People who have high self-efficacy tend to exert a high amount of effort for an extended time and demonstrate more adaptive coping behaviors than someone with low self-efficacy.

 Although we may feel broken, we are not. We need to focus our hope inward and empower ourselves. We can play a huge role in our recovery process.

To reduce pain, the brain needs to be distracted from thinking that we are in danger; we need to take action and progressively engage in activities, that over time, tells our brain that we are safe.[3] Active coping skills, movement that feels good, people that make us happy, a safe environment, optimism, joy, humor, mindfulness, creative expression, journaling, decreasing stressors in our lives, enjoying nature are all ways to send signals to the brain that we are safe and the pain alarm system can be turned down. So many options we have to start working on feeling safe!

Pain is not just a physical experience, but also an emotional experience. 

I once took a vacation to a beach resort, where all I basically could do, because the pain was so severe, was lay on the beach, lay in the water or snorkel, nap once a day, and go out to dinner at night. My vacation gave me the experience of safety. Away from hospitals, doctors, therapists, and everything that reminded me of pain and my injuries allowed me to stop thinking about them. Instead, my brain was distracted with warm sun, relaxation, and engaging in activities that brought me a sense of connection with nature and joy. This increased my emotional resilience and ability to cope with pain during my trip. 

pict of palm trees along a beach and ocean in Hawaii

It distracted me from always noticing and feeling the sensation of pain. It decreased my overall physiological state of hyper-arousal and hypervigilance, allowing my mind and body to relax, so much so that my physical therapist noticed reduced muscle tension, greater physical alignment, and improved ability to walk.When we provide ourselves respite in an environment that feels safe, and when we are able to create an emotional state of joy and calmness, we can directly and positively affect our brain and physical state, and improve our quality of life.

When considering this mind-body connection of pain (this painful connection, if you will), remember that our thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs directly influence our emotions. The influence that the mind-body connection has on our health cannot be underestimated. To emphasize the significance of this connection, perhaps we should also consider pain intensity as an emotion—or an emotional reaction—to our state of mind.


Try engaging in activities that bring you joy and peace. Start for 5 minutes and work your way up to longer activities. And remember to always give yourself compassion. To help increase your relaxation response and decrease the flight/fight/shutdown response, check out some of my meditations.

 Our emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes all affect pain and have the potential to be natural painkillers. 


May Increase Pain

May Decrease Pain

Noxious touch

Gentle touch, vibration, heat or cold



Negative thoughts, Pessimism

Positive thoughts, Optimism

Fear, Anxiety, Worry, Anger

Confident, Calm, Relaxed, Happy

Past Emotional and/or physical abuse/trauma

Appropriate rehabilitation

Emotional or physical tension

Emotional or physical relaxation

Over-focusing on pain



Purposeful activities

Repressed emotions

Actively coping with emotions

Low self-worth, rejection of body & self

Self-compassion and love,

Self-acceptance, strong sense of self -worth



[1] Lehman, Greg. (2017). Recovery Strategies Patient Guidebook, Section 1: Pain Principles, pg. 10. Retrieved from:

[2] Hanscom, David, MD. Back in Control: A Surgeon’s Roadmap Out of Chronic Pain, 2nd Ed. Vertus Press: 2016.

[3] Strobel, C., Hunt, S., Sullivan, R., Sun, J.Y., & Sah, P. (2014). Emotional regulation of Pain: the role of noradrenaline in the amygdala. Science China. Life Sciences. April 2014 (57)4: 384–390. doi: 10.1007/s11427-014-4638-x.

[4] Moseley. Lorimer. 2015, November 18. Explainer: What is Pain and What is Happening When We Feel It.  Retrieved from:

dock leading out to swamp

Pain and the Mind-Body Connection

dock leading out to swamp

At one point, I realized that my physical pain had become emotional pain, and the emotional pain further increased my physical pain. A vicious cycle of pain had formed, and my body had become more stuck in its protective state: contracted, tense, and cringing from the slightest touch, while physical and emotional hypersensitivities heightened.

Emotional pain or distress is physical distress; they are one and the same. The more emotionally stressed I feel, the more tense and painful my body feels, as well as the more likely I am to catch a cold. When my mind is more relaxed, so is my body, and my immune system is stronger.

The mind and body mirror each other.

When one is under stress, so is the other. They endure the same experiences at the same time, yet the effects are uniquely expressed in an individual.

A break-up with a loved one may cause emotional depression and literally a physically hurt heart and a sleep disorder. Ongoing emotional anxiety may mentally cause pervasive, negative thoughts and physically cause nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, and high blood pressure. A misaligned spine may cause anxiety and a feeling (“felt sense”) of insecurity, just as the spinal column is insecure. How many times have you felt anxious and irritable to only discover after “checking in with yourself” that you are hungry and your blood sugar is dropping?

Our behavior and our sense of self are also related to our physical and emotional pains. When my body feels insecure and weak, I know that I feel insecure and less confident, and I act insecure by behaving shyly and studying the floor instead of looking at people in the eyes. When the pain is physically intolerable, I feel anxious, I start talking a mile a minute, and I become fidgety and unable to concentrate.

It is empowering when we recognize how challenges and stressors individually affect us, and learn to cope with them. If we do not cope with them but instead, repress our emotions, eventually mental, emotional, and physical complications arise and our well-being deteriorates. Destructive thoughts and emotions can be just as crippling as physical ailments.

Pain is traumatic.

It affects us on many dimensions. Although it is acknowledged that physical pain can lead to depression and anxiety, I also believe that the mere experience of being injured, the experience of a medical procedure, and the memories from each event are traumatic in and of themselves, and may lead to post-traumatic stress.

Due to this inherent link between mind and body, psychological and physical states, I believe both need to be treated in order to achieve recovery and overall well-being. I believe this leads to a more powerful and effective rehabilitation. Healing is the harmonizing of mind and body.

We have a great gift of inherent wisdom mentally and physically within us. Learning this deep wisdom may seem as difficult as learning a completely new language, or at least that is what I found true for myself. We need to be fully aware. There are no separate levels of consciousness or of one’s self as a whole; there are merely different levels of attention. Through inner awareness we can learn what we need to create harmony within our mind and body.

Van Gogh's the Scream

Strategies For Overcoming Panic Attacks

Trauma is a mental or physical injury that can affect us on all levels. It can make us feel lost and unsure of how to reclaim our sense of self. This occurs from emotional or physical abuse, from discrimination or neglect, or from an injury or illness. Events and circumstances may be different, and people may be different, but I believe that a resulting interlocking link between people in such circumstances is fear.

Lack of control over past, painful medical experiences that led to excruciating complications of a paralyzed leg and foot, a broken back, torn dural tube, spinal fluid leaking, and a spinal Staph. infection causing horrific pain and continuous muscle spasms, left me feeling victimized and fearing a lack of control over current and future events. I formed a core fear associated with the false belief that I could not protect my body nor myself. The possibility of being threatened again and having little or no control over the outcome was terrifying. I became hyper-vigilent, always on guard for any possible threats that were similar to those of the past.  Pain, a touch on my back, my hyper-aroused state, past memories, an image, a doctor or medical treatment, and needles all triggered a conditioned reaction of terror and panic.

Babette Rothschild states that “The fear . . . once felt to an external threat becomes anxiety generated from within”. I became more and more petrified, catastrophizing that some new trauma was going to happen to me and lead to more pain. Exaggerated fears magnified. I worried that a simple Lidocaine injection in my mid-back would paralyze both my legs, or that I would one day simply awake with both legs paralyzed. I worried that I would get hit by a car because I too slowly limped across the street with my cane. I worried that my bones had become so weak they would crumble and my spine would collapse.

Past trauma combined with ongoing, bombarding pain signals, exasperating stress from trying to cope, and swelling terror from my inability to control the pain created a state of hyper-arousal that grew beyond self-control. My emotions had accumulated so many dimensions and layers that they developed an eerie power of their own, making it harder and harder for me to find my own sense of inner power.

black and white picture of woman's face with words related to fear, loneliness, withdrawal around her

Months of physical pain and emotional turmoil finally took their toll and manifested into panic attacks. The panic attacks were not picky; driving, sitting, standing, it did not matter. When pain suddenly increased, someone touched my back and its scar, when I looked at a medical appointment on my calendar, walked into a hospital, suddenly I was overtaken with a sense of doom. I would gasp for air as my heart raced, and I felt trapped and as if I were going to die. The pain, fear, and traumatic memories that came to life during the panic attacks stimulated even more pain, emotions, and flashbacks, further assaulting my nervous system and mental faculties

I did not understand what was happening to me. . . until one day.

I had been in the kitchen, well past my 10-minute standing tolerance, stirring the chocolate chip cookie dough mix in the bowl when suddenly my body’s alarm starting screeching, alerting me that I had stood too long and my body could no longer handle it. Instantly I lay down on the floor, trying to relax my body, decrease the pain, but the pain would not stop, and the alarm grew louder and louder. I tried to breathe, but could not. Terror overtook me as I lay on the floor like a fish out of water gulping for air. Suddenly, as if to escape my reality, my mind dissociated, pushing me outside of myself into some sort of dual awareness. In a flash, I was looking down at this girl lying on the floor. I watched her struggle to stop suffocating from her own hyperventilating. Exactly then I realized that that girl was me, and these horrific events I had been having must be panic attacks.

Self-compassion overcame me. Gently I reached my arms around and tightly held myself, calming myself. Then, I imagined myself sitting barefoot on the soft grass under a willow tree. It was the willow tree from my Grandmother’s back yard. I would sit under there as a child, feeling so safe and protected, enthralled by the long branches that umbrellaed me, gracefully swaying and dancing in the breeze. I am safe, I told myself as I hugged myself tighter. 

From this experience, although I still felt unsafe in my body and my environment, I started learning what I could do to begin overcoming panic attacks. 

My Strategies For Overcoming Panic Attacks

(For Safe Place Meditation and Breathing Exercises click here.)
1. Finding a Safe Place

       When the stinging bile of panic began to gurgle within me, my heart rate and breathing accelerated, my skin became clammy, and my face grew hot and red. I felt every muscle contract in fear as my body took the incorrect cue that it was in danger. Of these physiological responses, I specifically chose one as my cue that a panic attack was impending. It was my breathing.  My erratic breathing was my cue to quickly visualize something that made me feel safe.

– In my mind, anything was possible. I could escape to anywhere I wanted to be, and be free of pain. –

My mind’s respite was sitting under a willow tree on top of a hill. Surrounding the tree and myself, I allowed my mind to spontaneously create whatever it needed to feel a sense of peace. I closed my eyes. Amidst the raucous of thoughts and the blackness of terror, a beautiful, colorful, lush garden of greenery and flowers painted itself into a reality I could not resist. A sparkling stream of fresh water skipped by me. Following to where it began, I looked at the waterfall coming from the mountaintops, which touched the yellow rays of the sun. I felt the warmth from the sun, the gentle breeze on my cheek, the velvet grass I lay upon, the freedom of my surroundings. I smelled the grass, the flowers. This was my safe place. No one could enter it unless I gave permission, and I could come here anytime for as long I wanted. 

Finally I had found somewhere safe, where pain and despair did not exist. Creating this feeling of safety over and over again when it was most needed, gradually created a reality of feeling safe within not only my mind, but my body. As soon as the pain became unbearable, I employed my safe place technique. Over and over I practiced and soon it became an automatic coping technique that initiated without effort.

Over time, as visualizing my safe place instantly brought me comfort, it also enabled me to become more aware of my physiological responses related to the panic attacks. 

2. Breathing

Too hyper-aroused from panic to talk myself into calmness, my safe place mentally energized and empowered me to physically alter my breathing in a way that would calm myself. During panic and anxiety attacks, higher cognitive functions are inhibited by memories, emotions, and protective defense mechanisms. Breathing is a function of the brain stem (the lower brain), where survival, heart rate, and alertness are controlled. By actively controlling my breathing, I was able to directly control my level of alertness and hyper-arousal. Concentration on my breath slowly passing into my lungs for the count of four and then exhaling out for the count of eight brought my attention back to my body, away from the flashbacks and internal madness. I attended to the breath. I felt it. I visualized the breath to be waves of an ocean moving in and out of my being.

– I also discovered that exhaling out of pursed lips, instead of my nose, slowed my breathing and forced me to take more expansive inhalations, stopping me from hyperventilating. –

Focus on my breath started bringing relief to my terror-stricken system, literally allowing it to catch a breath and slow down. Sometimes while focusing on my breath, I became creative and visualized air as a light green wave coming into my lungs and floating down into my lower abdomen, filling it with an imagined feeling of calm warmth. As I exhaled, the color slowly drifted back up and out of my mouth. This helped me to move my attention from the surface of my body to within my body, and to maintain my attention for longer periods of time.

Gradually I learned that a feeling of shortness of breath was my cue to immediately focus on my breathing until I was in safe harbor.

Such a deep focus on my breathing anchored me back into my body and decreased my reactivity to pain and my emotions. Attending to my breathing became a conditioned response I could instantly employ, along with my safe place image, as a means to decrease my panic. The concentration it took to sense and to control my breathing was incredibly difficult to maintain, yet it was also magnificently reassuring. Yes, I was getting air! I really could breathe after all! This brought a heightened sense of self-control and self-reliance.

Next, I learned what to do when my panic was so pronounced that I could not calm myself. I gave myself a physical cue of safety by hugging and holding myself and then chanting a soft “Shhhh” with each exhalation because it triggered a calm remembrance of my mother soothing me when I was sick as a child. But I also noticed something else. Shhhh became a mantra that my mind could focus on instead of being in its frenzy of uncontrollable thoughts.

 As time and practice progressed, I began examining the crust of each emotion and thought. I tried not to judge my emotions and thoughts as bad or good. I had to get past the judgments of them to get past the fear they created.

3. Emotions

 I discovered that I could focus more easily and specifically on my emotions by investigating them immediately after the panic attacks, when I felt calmer and safer. Imagining myself back in the scenario, I tried to sense what emotions I had felt, their intensity, and from what they stemmed. I tried to determine how my present emotions were influenced by past emotions, attending to the emotional layers.

I continuously asked:

  1.  What was happening before the panic attack?
  2.  What led me to react this way and feel fear?
  3.  What other emotions did I feel? Why? From where do they stem?


4. Thoughts

As I grew more centered, I grew more conscious of my thoughts.

1. First, I wrote down my scattered thoughts:  ”I can’t take this!”; “No one’s around. What if I need to go to the emergency room?”; “I felt something. Was that a spasm or is my spinal fluid leaking again? What if my spinal fluid is leaking again?”; “Does this pain mean that I need another surgery? I can’t handle another surgery!”“Does anyone out there care?”; “I am so alone.”

My thoughts were onrushing fears manifested.

2. From identifying my thoughts, I discovered they were inflamed with unending dread, spawned either from my actual past medical experiences or from an unending series of self-inflicted, catastrophic what if questions.

3. I began to recognize negative thoughts had fueled more panic, which in turn stimulated more negative thoughts. 

4. Actively, I started changing my thoughts to calming and positive affirmations, such as, “I’ll be okay; I know this will pass.”; “Pain is just a sensation; it is not harming me.”; “I am strong; I will get through this.”; “I am safe.”

– I talked myself into confidence balanced with determination to take back control. –


Gradually, increased self-awareness furnished an increased sense of control and safety of being in my body. Now my psyche was able to relax, and fear of pain started decreasing. I was coming back from pain and panic.

Reference: Rothschild, Babette. The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma TreatmentEd. First W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. p. 62.
woman sitting on beach looking out onto ocean as sun begins to set

Safe Place Meditation

This meditation guides you through creating your own special image that gives you a feeling of comfort and safety. With practice, you will easily & quickly be able to recall this image at any time when you need to feel safe. I found this technique very helpful to regain a sense of safety during panic attacks due to heightened pain. (click picture or title)

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The Experience of Emotions

There was a point when I felt that no one in the medical system seemed to understand that my intense fears of doctors and pain had become ingrained within me. There was no one to help me through these fears. My emotions had accumulated so many dimensions and layers that they developed an eerie power of their own, making it harder and harder for me to find my own sense of inner power. Was I descending into a nightmare of insanity? Pain is not simply a physical sensation. Over a time period, the unending, debilitating physical pain and traumatic memories slowly metamorphosized into uncontrollable anxiety that terrorized and disabled my mind, body, and spirit. I was truly living in hell. I had to make a choice: to continue creating this hell in which I was living or to find a way out.


     I was aware that the emotions I experienced when in the hospital (from surgeries) were still forcibly with me and influenced how I experienced and reacted to present and future situations. These old emotions had never left my psyche after I left the hospital.  During my hospital stays, I subconsciously feared that fully experiencing my emotions meant feeling more physical pain. I had automatically repressed my emotions for protection and mere survival. But this created layers of emotions built one upon another. 

     To better understand my emotions, I needed to acknowledge them. I diligently began acknowledging and truly sensing, feeling, and experiencing all the emotions that surfaced from living in non-stop, severe pain. I appointed several times each week when I knew I would be alone and forced myself to become aware of and feel my emotions and cry them out. The amount of courage and emotional strength this took convinced me that there was still inner strength within me; I had not lost it.

            But was acknowledging and feeling my emotions from the past sufficient?  Perhaps I needed to process them. But how? And what does “to process” even mean? Perhaps it means to understand their evolution, and how my present emotions were influenced by past emotions. For each emotion I felt, I journaled pages upon pages, asking myself:

  1. How, when, and why was a particular emotion constructed?
  2. How had that emotion progressed and influenced my present emotional state?
  3. How had it influenced all aspects of my Self, including my behaviors and outlook on my life?

     Each day I settled myself with pen in hand and wrote, feverously trying to understand the relationships between pain, trauma, emotions, and my sense of self. The more I understood my fears, the less I would fear them. I began analyzing the contents and nature of my dreams and I began self-dialoguing, loading my journal with daily question-and-answer sessions with myself. I also began to evaluate how I interacted with medical professionals and friends, and how I handled specific situations:

  1. What was I thinking before, during, after the event? (i.e. doctor visit, walking and feeling pain increase)
  2. What was the main emotion before, during, after the event? Why?
  3. What did I fear would happen? Why? Was my fear conditioned from past experiences? 
  4. What was my behavioral response towards my thoughts and emotions before, during, after the event? 
  5. Did I act or react? How did my reaction(s) and fear affect the pain?
  6. What really happened during this event?
  7. How was this different from what I had expected?
  8. What can I do next time before, during, and after the event to help me more effectively deal with the event? 

     The above questions helped me to reorganize my thoughts, cognitively piecing things together again, as I began understanding my fears, and how and why they developed. The more I understood my fears, the less I was afraid of them. This led to increasing awareness and control over my thoughts, emotions, and behavioral reactions.

      Increased self-awareness furnished increased sense of control and safety of being in my body. I no longer repressed and fled from my emotions. I began allowing them to come forth. And I slowly began having reasonable, not fearfully outlandish expectations of what would happen when I met with a doctor or experienced heightened pain.  


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redwood tree reaching for the sunny sky

Emotional Residue from Trauma

redwood tree reaching for the sunny sky

One day, in my massage class, the teacher asked for a volunteer to demonstrate manual techniques we were learning. Lisa volunteered. She was about my age at the time, mid-20s, fit, and walked with an air of confidence.

While my teacher was demonstrating massage techniques, she found a tight spot. Lisa’s left hip appeared stuck and inflexible, as if it was “frozen”. Attempting to loosen this area, the teacher moved her leg and hip into a specific position. Suddenly, Lisa cowered into a fetal position on the floor, yelling at a man none of us could see. Unable to distinguish the past from the present, she began reliving a past trauma of sexual assault. Lisa was too hyper-aroused and dissociated to comprehend what was occurring and why. 

“Lisa, what image will help you feel strong and powerful?” the teacher asked.

 “A redwood tree,” she said. 

The teacher guided Lisa into feeling as if she was a tree. The class watched as Lisa moved from kneeling on the floor to standing and stretching tall into the air, feeling her feet strongly rooted into the ground, feeling the strength of her trunk and body. Gradually Lisa transformed from a cowering child to a strong woman towering over us.  Using this somatic, experiential technique had decreased Lisa’s fear of being in her body, and in turn, brought her back into her body in present time. 

Feeling empowered, Lisa then began screaming to the (imagined) adult, “You no longer have control over me! I am in control. I am no longer going to suffer from what you did to me!”

“Being a tree” gave Lisa a new sensory experience in her body (and mind) of strength and resilience, which she had not felt as a young child while being molested. This renewed inner strength enabled her to take an active, aggressive stance, and to respond as she previously had wanted as a child, but incapable.

Through this experiential, somatic technique, Lisa reclaimed herself and her power. Levine (1997) characterized this process as her way of renegotiating the trauma: she actively restored a sense of aggression, reclaimed a sense of empowerment, chose and executed her actions, and achieved mastery, successfully dealing with and gaining control over the threat.1 


What Happened?  

Unfortunately, what should have been a neutral experience for Lisa during massage class, instead, her brain perceived as a threat. Lisa’s brain compared sensory information of the teacher’s touch and positioning to sensory input from her previous experiences of being sexually assaulted as a child.2  Suddenly residual emotions that had kept hidden (or frozen) in her unconscious were accessed and unlocked.

These are not the only “residue” patterns that could have been stored. Even Lisa’s specific state of arousal could have been perceived by the mind as threatening if it was the same as when she experienced the trauma. Specific physiological, physical, mental, and emotional states that she experienced as a child developed into a protective alarm mechanism that identified future “threats”.

Unable to consciously process through these stuck memories, emotions, and bodily postures, the trauma festered within. Levine (1997) stated that: “…post-traumatic symptoms are, fundamentally, incomplete physiological responses suspended in fear”, and locked in our nervous system.3

Kolk (1994) emphasized that treatment of the body is an important key to recovery. Mere talk cannot organize the resulting disorganized sensations and action patterns that have become imprinted in the brain. While re-experiencing the old trauma, higher cognition is inhibited by emotional and experiential memories.4

The massage teacher incorporated psychological, sensory, and manual techniques to help Lisa release frozen “energies” as she relived her trauma and finally, triumphantly, created her own ending.

Using the Body as a Therapeutic Tool For Pain Management

That day I realized, similar to Lisa, I was still frozen in time. I existed in a mental and physical state of shock and fear from past traumatic physical injuries and medical procedures. Mentally, I remained in fear, on guard, hyper-vigilant, and defensive in order to protect myself from any perceived threat or potential future injury. Physically, my body remained tight and frozen.  

 Massage class taught me a new way to more deeply access my emotions related to pain–through the body.

Placing my hand on the painful area of my back and focusing my attention there suddenly brought more awareness than ever before of all the motions related to the pain and its consequences. By “communicating” with my low back at a specific “activating point”, which consisted of muscle tension and nerve pain, I accessed deep emotional layers of intense anger and victimization that hid behind the physical pain. Previously, these hidden emotional layers I was unable to tap into by merely intellectualizing. Perhaps, I could not have otherwise released them without this technique. 

The technique of imagining myself as a tree also taught me how to feel safe in my body. Often when I felt that the pain was unbearable and I wanted to run away from myself, I would use this technique to feel strong and powerful, and I would imagine my legs as roots running down into the earth, releasing pain down into the earth. This method calmed me and brought me back into my body.

This massage class was the beginning of learning how to interpret the unique langue of my mind and body. 

looking up at large green tree with light shining through the leaves

Tree Imagery Meditation - 11 mins.

Pain often makes us feel unsafe in our body, vulnerable, and powerless. This meditation guides you through imagining, and then, feeling yourself as “being a tree”, feeling strong, grounded, powerful, and energized. You can also imagine your legs and feet as roots, releasing pain into ground, neutralizing it. (Click picture for meditation)

→For more meditations, click here

May you feel the power and strength that lies within, despite chronic pain and illness.


1.     Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997, p.122.

2.    Perry, Bruce D. Memories of Fear. Web version of chapter published as “The Memories of States” in Goodwin and R. Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma. New York: Basic Books, pp. 9-38.

3.     Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997, p. 34.

4.. Kolk, Bessel van der. The Body Keeps the Score. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1994, 1(5), 253-265.     


Recent editions of the referenced books:

Kolk, Bessel van der. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. September 8, 2015.

Levine, Peter A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. September 28, 2010

Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Audio CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged Ed. 2016.

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