By Anita Schnee, GCFP CM
Imagine body, mind, and soul in a healthy, vibrant biome, each element at home in its fitting habitat. Then imagine a biome desiccated by salts of old anguish, every green thing devoured by battalions of locusts. This is the chronic-pain biome at its worst. An injury is no longer acute but the pain grinds on. Its triggers are unknown or only vaguely identifiable. Sufferers feel desperate or in despair. Bystanders are baffled or hostile or both. Pain is misdiagnosed, mistreated, or merely masked by medication.
Since the last two decades, though, thanks to technological advances in brain imaging, a new narrative is emerging. That narrative reveals the role of the glial nervous system. Glial “white matter” underpins the more-familiar “gray-matter” neuronal systems. Neurons transmit sensation. Glia, on the other hand, drive learning, habit, memory, motor coordination, visual acuity, skills- and language-acquisition – and even how we interpret our dreams.
In chronic physical pain, recent research posits that the glial system gets “stuck” in over-stimulating the neurons. The Feldenkrais Method® is, for me, the most effective means by which to re-wire these physical-pain patterns.
I suggest, though, that the emotional experience runs on a track parallel to, but not the same as, the physical. Treatment of one realm doesn’t necessarily interact with the other. Emotional pain calls for its own separate but concurrent attention, before a meaningful way can be found to move out of both kinds of chronic pain.
GLIAL CELLS: THE WIZARDS BEHIND THE CURTAIN
In an interview with Dr. Ginger Campbell on her Brain Science podcast, groundbreaking neuroscientist Douglas Fields says:
“Pain has more to do than with just nerve endings. . . . [I]t turns out that the glia in the spinal cord . . . are monitoring the pain information – the neural activity in pain fibers. And [the glia] respond to . . . initial injury [by releasing] substances that are important in the healing process, but they intensify the pain by exciting neurons. Now, that’s fine right after an injury . . . It makes you leave this injury alone, so it will heal. But that needs to subside with time. And if these glia don’t stop releasing these substances that excite pain neurons, then you will continue to feel excruciating pain after the injury has healed.”
Where there is no other convincing explanation for the pain, then, the glia appear to have commandeered the chronic-pain situation. We sufferers need to learn how to persuade them to change course.
ALGEBRA ACCORDING TO THE GLIA
The nervous system depends on its ability to manage split-second coordination of nerve impulses from various sources in the brain and body, so the impulses can wire together and fire together. Specialized glial cells pick and choose which messages to favor. They pull off this feat by myelination.
Myelin is insulation that grows around the spidery legs of nerve cells, the axons. The more myelin, the more insulation. The more insulation, the faster that nerve impulses can travel along the axons. To orchestrate a coherent signal, timing is everything. Sometimes speed is called-for; sometimes not so much. Glia juggle it all, in an intricate biological story-problem.
Suppose two nerve-impulse friends want to rendezvous simultaneously in New York City. One friend lives in Chicago, the other in Boston. Both depart for New York at the same time. How fast must the Chicago friend travel, to meet the Boston friend on time in New York?
The glia perform that calculation (somehow) and then they myelinate accordingly. Less myelin is deposited along the Boston pathway; more along the Chicago pathway. Voltage leaks out of the Boston-NYC pathway and the Boston friend ambles. More voltage is packed-in along the Chicago path and the Chicago friend hustles. Thanks to glia’s exquisitely precise myelin orchestration, the two friends fist-bump on the dot under the Grand Central clock.
So if the glia can do all that, what could be stopping them from reorganizing, to coordinate neuronal output into a more-kindly message than chronic pain?
THE GRIEF-PAIN CONNECTION
The answer might lie in the close similarity I see between chronic physical pain and the very particular emotional condition of chronic grief. The physical pain can be thought-of as a more-concrete expression of more-amorphous and elusive chronic grief.
Social scientist Pauline Boss describes chronic grief as “ambiguous loss.” It’s also been called “frozen” or “complicated” or “disenfranchised” grief. This grief is felt in trauma as it is experienced by the individual who suffers it over the arc of time. Boss says that “no single narrative can explain a deprivation; subjectivity colors our perception of loss.”
In all this, surely glia have been working overtime to lather-on the myelin along less-than-optimal emotional pathways, just as they have done along the chronic-pain pathways as well.
IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH FOR THE CIRCUS TO COME TO TOWN
There is a very particular feeling of haphazardness that seems to trigger episodes of chronic pain. Joan Didion described the lead-up to her regular migraines:
“It never comes when I am in real trouble . . . . It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work done and the wind is coming up.”
In my own case, the feeling is of disorganization, fragmentation. I feel antsy, on edge. My thoughts run off in diffuse forays, racing along and then vanishing like puffs on a hot griddle. I hear about possible cuts to my Medicare while corporations pay no taxes. Wrongful convictions. Species loss. Gun violence. The end of long-form journalism. A friend calls on me for legal help, but he dies before I can produce it. The end of my cats’ lives. The end of my life.
Meaning must emerge from terror, ambiguity, and confusion. The glial circus needs a firmer, kinder ringmaster.
Here is where the Feldenkrais Method is uniquely important. The work is designed to foster awareness of physical organization through the skeleton. So, I find that Feldenkrais® movement reconnects me with an embodied physical organization that is reliable and functional. It is anchored in gravity. It bears weight. It works. Disorganization can then dissipate, replaced by a renewed sense of solidity and reliability.
IMAGINE ANOTHER TRUTH
On the emotional side, a new narrative of meaning must replace the old story. Apparently, it needs only to be good enough, to serve as a plausible means to lay to rest the old alarms and sorrows. Pauline Boss suggests that some losses have no concrete solutions. The sufferer’s goal should be to learn how to tolerate ambiguity, to live well despite not knowing or understanding the scope of the losses. Boss says that the process happens through “listening to one’s emotions and responding to intuition. Like a poet, a researcher . . . need[s] . . . to imagine what the truth might be.”
The key imperative seems to be to turn away from unanswerable questions where, really, no satisfactory explanation can be found. Those kinds of questions surely build glial loops resulting in frustration or unhappiness. Rather, a more constructive question might instead be: “Where else can I find meaning?”
That is not a simple enterprise. The “meaning” research-project must account for, cultivate, and nourish each of all the elements – so the body may grow out of dysfunctional habitual patterns, the mind may find rest, and the soul be nourished. Each element may then coexist with the others in an organized, cooperative relationship.
Practicing that kind of cooperation on the physical level, as we do in Feldenkrais movement, undergirds a more-global coexistence between body and the rest of the self. Feldenkrais moves gently around the edges of painful areas. If the shoulder kills, let it rest, without irritation stimulated by unsuitable activity. Move the foot, knee, hip instead. The gentle, quiet movement in other places fosters an atmosphere of calm. There, degrees of freedom can be explored without stimulating anxiety or suffering. Slowly, freedom emerges, enlarges, generalizes – and the pain slowly fades.
My own exploration of that process has depended on constant and steady attention. Twenty-nine years of daily Awareness Through Movement® practice has been more than just necessary – it has been essential. It alone, however, has not been sufficient. I rely on the highly specific and targeted meditations in Les Fehmi’s Open Focus work. Music and books and walks in nature and podcasts help. Horses and cats and birds and some family and friends help.
And things tend to fall apart less. The center holds more.
So it seems to me that the important thing is to begin and to persist in one’s own quintessential research for meaning. If “stuck” glia do contribute to sustaining both physical and psychic pain, the way to move is to invite them into new meaning-paradigms in both realms, physical and emotional.
For physical pain, Feldenkrais teachings are unmatched as a gentle but firm (and sometimes astonishing) invitation to build fresh movement patterns. For emotional injury, the glia might be invited to myelinate away from unanswerable questions and toward a more-satisfying sense of meaning. Answering those questions in both realms is a process of individual re-invention and imagination, to discover a more-functional, more-reliable, more-unified pattern of being.
The journey along both roads may be long, but attending to both is the durable pathway I have found to move into greater ease, hope, and possibility.
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Anita loves cats. This must be because she, too, has nine lives. She’s been dancing since she could walk, she was an advertising producer, she earned a third-degree black belt in Aikido, she is a drummer with the Afrique Aya Dance Company, she is a practicing attorney, and she offers Awareness Through Movement® lessons to the public and to students of horse-and-handler teacher Alexandra Kurland. Anita graduated from the Delman-Questel Bronxville (NY) Feldenkrais® training in 1998. Contact her at [email protected]