Pain control is central to physical training. The one who goes further, is the one who can manage being uncomfortable.
Your brain puts limits on what your body can do. It limits how much you can lift even when you are exerting yourself. And it limits how fast and how far you can run.
So, is it really possible to block out pain that is arresting. It grabs a hold of your mind and clouds out all other thoughts. When you feel pain, it controls your mind, it controls you and you cannot process anything else. It is the ultimate stress test.
How does pain work?
Pain is a distress signal sent to your brain. It is all in your brain. No brain, no pain.
Normally pain is a good thing because it is a mechanism to keep you safe and protect your body. But at times, you may want to control pain, like chronic pain, to make an event less traumatic, or to increase your performance in fitness.
There are two areas of the brain that register pain:
One is physical and one is emotional. The physical sends a signal along the sensory pathway to the brain about the injury and the emotional sends a signal from the injury to the parts of the brain that process emotion (amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex).
So pain is both physical and emotional.
"You may not be aware of it, but you're having a negative emotional reaction to chronic pain as well as a physical reaction," says Natalia Morone, MD.
Pain travels along a pathway which may or may not get processed. It starts from the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord (periphery nerves) to the spinal cord (central nervous system) then up to the brain.
You can block the signal so that it doesn't reach the brain (gate control theory) or the brain can turn down the volume by producing endorphins, which are morphine like brain chemicals.
Gate control theory explains that the gates are located in the spinal cord and can open or close to allow the flow of pain messages from the peripheral nerves to the brain. What determines whether pain gets through or not is determined by different factors. These are the mental, emotional, and physical. It is rarely just one of these, but rather a mix of all of them.
The brain can send signals down to amplify the pain during stress and anxiety or it can close it, preventing the signal from reaching the brain.
The Three Big Areas Where Pain is Controlled:
A yogi undergoes surgery with no pain meds, using only the power of the breath.
Yonah Offner uses the power of the breath to block out pain during surgery. I think a couple of reasons why this works is number one, he puts his body in a total relaxed state - 3 breaths per minute. In a relaxed state, the brain doesn't perceive the activity as alarming. You can try this on a small scale where if you poke your arm with something pointy and hold it there, eventually the pain starts to fade. This is because the brain feels that it is no longer a threat, and turns down the signal. That is the same type of thing when Yonah is really controlling his breath and keeping himself in the relaxed state.
The second part, by focusing on the breath, his mind is not focused on the pain, which would intensify it. When the mind is occupied, it's hard for it to process anything else.
Mind over matter in pain control.
In this video Jack Schwarz runs a sailor makers needle through his bicep.
You probably don't want to watch this if that sort of thing makes you feel queasy.
When he explains how he is able to to do this, he says he sees his arm in a totally detached way, almost like running a needle through a sofa cushion.
To get to that level of detachment, he did meditation. He called it "voluntary controls". The way he explains it is that most of your processes are subconscious and we don't control them. But by tapping into the unconscious processes in the body, one is able to start regulating those functions, like physical pain, blood flow, blood pressure and heart rate.
The way you begin is by following a certain breathing pattern that you feel comfortable with. It could be the 4, 7, 8 method, or reverse breathing. Once you are comfortable with it, after practicing several minutes, then you allow it to continue on its own and then begin to do your meditation. You must trust that your breathing pattern will continue. If it ends up changing, just note why it may have. Maybe there is a thought, or maybe you were in a stressed state or tired.
But by turning over a new breathing pattern to your subconscious, you are in effect controlling subconscious processes.
So what to make of all this?
To sum all this up, your body can handle pain a lot easier when you are in a relaxed state through deep breathing and by keeping your mind occupied, either through mediation, visualization or in the moment.
About the blog
Luke Shao and Master Wang are on a mission to share the ancient Chinese approach to acquiring any skill.