When we’re looking to reduce pain and anxiety, developing skills and words about how to interact with the feeling states inside you is really important. 

In this blog, I’m going to explore feeling, and how we can get better at learning how to manage intense feelings.

Recent science is helping us develop our understanding of touch and feeling. It turns out that the way nerves work is much more complex than we thought.

When I touch something, the receptors of a nerve are stimulated and a signal travels from a nerve into my central nervous system. We used to think that nerves are just like wires carrying a clean signal from the receptor. However, as this process unfolds, the fluid chemical soup inside of me can affect the activity of the nerve. Various cells secrete chemicals and generate signals in the body in a way that is much richer and more diverse than we previously realised. For example:

~ We’ve recently learned that immune cells can talk to nerves – this is very new science. 

~ We’ve also learned that nerves are sensitive to hormones and inflammatory markers along the whole length of the nerve, not just at the receptor, as classically was thought. 

~ There are ‘danger’ chemicals that come from surprising sources, such as stress hormones.

~ Lack of movement generates pro-inflammatory signals, as well as reducing the anti-inflammatory messages from muscles.

So we have nerves that are far more sensitive than we originally thought, transmitting much more information into the nervous system than we originally thought.

The Central Nervous System is also much more complex:

~ There are immune-like cells that change the firing of the synapses inside the CNS.

~ The blood brain barrier is permeable to danger messages produced outside the CNS.

~ We have a heart brain and a belly brain which are in a two way conversation with the CNS.

Let’s bring it down to earth – how do we work within this complexity to come out of persistent pain, anxiety or inflammatory states? It turns out that the simple things are really useful. 

1    Love, awe, and wonder generate a different set of chemicals inside you that turn off or desensitise nerves. Cultivate these feelings as much as you can by regularly doing activities and spending time with people that inspire and uplift you. 

2   Movement – if you move a little bit more today than yesterday, you’ll make progress. Studies show that even running, instead of walking up stairs is really helpful. If movement were a new drug it would be flying off the shelves – it would be worth billions!

3   Interact with people – we are inherently social animals. So, even though humans are our biggest source of danger, we’re also hardwired to connect, and spending time around safe, trusted people, switches on feel-good hormones, like oxytocin. These hormones effect how the nerves work and makes them less sensitive.

4   Get good sleep – Roger Federer sleeps 13 hours a night, and he’s the best tennis player in the world! People who perform better tend to be those who also sleep better. Your nervous system does a lot of housekeeping at night. Immune-like activity in the brain – the glymphatic system – cleans and repairs and improves functioning of nerves in deep sleep. Deep, recuperative sleep is your best meditation. 

So yes, we are sensitive creatures and our sensitivity is rooted in our nerves, but those nerves are much more complex than we previously thought. They’re sensitive to both ‘danger’ chemicals which can increase pain, anxiety and inflammatory states, as well as the chemicals and signals generated by love, connection, deep rest and regular movement, which can help us find new pathways out of chronic pain, chronic inflammatory states and anxiety, and towards more health, calmer states and a different relationship to pain.

It turns out that being sensitive may be how we can become less sensitive!

Thanks, Steve

P.S. We have some great events coming up if you’d like to explore this work in more depth. Our Engaging the Body: exploring movement and awareness to change pain workshop is on November 1st, our Intro to Therapeutic Touch is on Nov 3rd, and our next Trauma Releasing Exercises Intro is on Nov 14th. Hope to see you at an event soon!