Pain can degrade our quality of life in many ways.  For example, it can undermine our capacity for pleasure, interfere with our relationships, and make it difficult to work.  More insidiously, it can decrease the quantity and compromise the quality of our sleep, creating a vicious cycle. This is because impaired sleep can in turn increase our stress levels, lower our pain thresholds, and elevate our risk for painful injuries and diseases.  In sum, poor quality sleep leads to more pain, and more pain leads to less sleep.  Fortunately, therapies exist which can disrupt this positive feedback loop. The Feldenkrais Method® and the Sounder Sleep System™ are approaches which can relieve pain and facilitate deeper, higher-quality sleep. Although these techniques are typically taught separately, they work especially well in concert.

We all intuitively know that sleep deprivation makes life more difficult for ourselves and for those around us.  And unfortunately, the negative effects snowball, as chronic stress contributes to insomnia.  Some of these effects are obvious to any of us who have tried to soothe a red-faced, screaming toddler who could clearly use a nap. Lack of sleep tends to excite the amygdala (the fear and aggression center of the brain) while simultaneously suppressing the ability of the prefrontal cortex to exercise the good judgment we need to keep unreasonable surges of emotions in check.  Also, when deprived of sleep we are less able to read the facial expressions and gestures of others, making us prone to misinterpret social situations and fall more readily into various forms of conflict and emotional turmoil.

Moreover, if you’ve ever anxiously lain awake in the wee hours staring at the alarm clock, you can anticipate a difficult day ahead.  Your energy level will be low, your attention will wander, your thought process will feel sluggish, and as you fall behind in your tasks, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed.  It will be tempting to caffeinate yourself heavily, but the caffeine and stress will make it harder to sleep that night.   

Considering how insomnia contributes to stress overload, it might not be surprising to know that chronic sleep deprivation raises your risk for depression, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric issues.  But only recently has it been established that it contributes to chronic inflammation, cardiovascular issues and diabetes.  Even more sobering, perhaps, is that chronic insomnia raises the risk for developing, and can speed the progression of, painful autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.  Compounding the problem is that a common side effect of antidepressants, corticosteroids, immunosuppressants and opioids is sleep disruption.  

As if this weren’t bad enough, sleep deprivation hurts because it lowers your pain threshold.  What might be merely uncomfortable can be excruciating when you’re exhausted.  Of course, this leads to more sleepless nights, and thus more pain.  This phenomenon has deep implications for those who suffer chronic pain, as this positive feedback loop can translate to years of debilitating misery.  

It follows then that sleeping well can have a protective effect against pain, psychological distress and a raft of adverse health conditions.  The Feldenkrais Method and the Sounder Sleep System are two approaches to pain and sleep that are entirely complementary and have no negative side effects.  They are cost-effective in that they can be taught in a group setting and require no special equipment.  

Feldenkrais Reduces Pain by Re-Educating the Nervous System

The Feldenkrais Method of somatic education can be thought of as a way of rehabilitating the nervous system.  Through guided attention and sensory cues, one becomes aware of deeply ingrained habits of thought and movement that have a profound influence on one’s well being.  Feldenkrais works by tapping into neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change form and function in response to experience.  Another way to describe this is that the brain learns how to imagine, initiate and execute physical actions. With learning as the goal in mind,  the Feldenkrais teacher skillfully curates experiences (movement sequences and combinations) that perturb and stimulate the brain to replace old, maladaptive motor habits with new, beneficial habits of movement.  This is why although in practice Feldenkrais may resemble conventional exercise or physiotherapy, the emphasis is not on performance but on curiosity, experimentation, and finding one’s own solutions to movement puzzles.  As though magically, awkward, habitually asymmetrical movements that prematurely wear out the body are transformed into easy, graceful actions.  This reduces the risk of injury, takes less energy, allows muscles to work the minimal amount necessary, and can even nourish cartilage and lubricate joints.  Participants often remark that they feel restored and whole, and accompanying that sensation is deep calm.  It is not unusual for them to sleep deeply and soundly after their sessions.  

Sleep promotes neuroplasticity

Motor learning can be transient (you might forget how to play a passage on the piano just hours after practicing it) or more permanent (no one forgets how to ride a bicycle).  Some might call this muscle memory, but of course the memory exists not in the muscles, but in the brain.  There are strategies inherent to Feldenkrais that help the brain to shift the transient memories of newly acquired motor skills to circuits below the level of consciousness, where they become more permanent and can be thought of as habits.  This process is called memory consolidation, and research demonstrates that consolidation of motor memories is aided by sleep, and in particular, certain phases of sleep.  Thus it is not just the quantity of sleep, but the quality of the sleep architecture, or cycles of sleep, that can enhance how well the lessons of motor learning are incorporated into one’s daily life.  

The Sounder Sleep System Provides Practical Tools to Fall (and Stay) Asleep

The Sounder Sleep System, developed by Feldenkrais practitioner Michael Krugman, goes beyond mainstream sleep hygiene recommendations.  It is unique among sleep intervention methods in that it gives you a wide variety of practical and reliable tools to fall asleep: calming and sleep-inducing Mini-Moves™.  These are slow, minute (even imaginary), and oscillatory movements of neurologically rich regions of the body:  the eyes, tongue, and hands, usually in conjunction with breathing techniques.  You may practice some of these exercises periodically during the day, learning to easily transition between the sympathetic and parasympathetic states.  Other Mini-Moves are useful for bringing on sleep, whether at bedtime or to return to sleep upon awakening in the middle of the night.  The Sounder Sleep System also addresses attitudes and behaviors around sleep, including anxiety about falling asleep and waking prematurely.

An Integrated Approach to Pain and Insomnia

The multifaceted, interrelated aspects of sleep and pain, and their ability to affect one another creating feedback loops, make it critical that both are addressed as you consider your treatment options.  Addressing both sleep and pain can help to vastly improve your quality of life and even restore function.  As a bonus, physical exercise becomes more feasible, and in this context good quality sleep confers benefits that include a rise in blood oxygen saturation, lower lactic acid build up, more efficient cooling through sweat loss and a lower risk of injury.  In the recovery phase, it helps to reduce inflammation and initiate muscle repair.  Moreover, the enhanced sensory awareness gained from Feldenkrais makes it less likely that you’ll push too hard and injure yourself.

The many benefits of Feldenkrais are not to be understated, including, for many, vastly improved sleep as pain subsides, overworked muscles relax and your bed becomes more comfortable. Likewise, the Sounder Sleep System is itself a stand-alone therapy that has the potential to reduce pain as a side-effect of improved sleep. However, these systems are entirely compatible, and using both methods concurrently has the potential to enhance and accelerate healing.  

About Hannah

Living with an autoimmune form of arthritis, Hannah Vo-Dinh knows well the vicious cycle of insomnia and chronic pain.  As a Guild-Certified Feldenkrais practitioner and an Authorized Sounder Sleep System Teacher based in Frederick, MD, she offers both approaches to her clients.  When she’s not working, she enjoys swimming, reading and, of course, sleeping.
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