Relieve Pain by Developing a Felt Sense of Safety
You may be familiar with the term “negativity bias”. It refers to our tendency to be more strongly affected by negative experiences rather than by neutral or positive ones, even when they are of similar intensity.
Humans have evolved to be always on a lookout for danger: it’s a survival mechanism. Paying more attention to a potential threat, “erring on the side of caution” makes intuitive sense. It is always safer to mistake a rope for a snake than a snake for a rope. You don’t want to inadvertently step on a snake while believing it’s an innocuous object! To make sure we are safe our brain tends to pay exaggerated attention to potential signals of danger turning up the “danger volume”.
"To make sure we are safe our brain tends to pay exaggerated attention to
potential signals of danger"
If we are also feeling stressed at any particular moment those signals of danger will be amplified. We know that pain is one of the ways the brain warns us about danger, that’s why when we are on high alert, when we are feeling stressed, we are also more sensitive to pain.
How do we turn down the “danger volume'' and make our brain feel safe so that it does not need to constantly broadcast danger signals to our nervous system?
Yoga therapy uses mind-body practices to help our nervous system decrease signals of pain and strengthens signals of safety. Even if, on a rational level, we understand that we are not in danger, in the moment, when we are already stressed or in pain, it can be hard to counteract our mind's negativity bias, or even be aware of it. But we can learn to use our conscious mind to develop and amplify signals of safety in the nervous system by developing a felt sense of safety. Practicing such skills regularly will make them more available to us in the moment, even when we are feeling stressed.
"We need to feed our nervous system signals of safety by engaging both the
mind and the body"
Why do we need to develop a felt sense? Our nervous system uses cues that come from the body. “Mind over matter’ does not work, because the influence goes both ways. The nervous system sends signals from the mind to the body (top down) as well as from the body to the mind (bottom up). We need to feed our nervous system signals of safety by engaging both the mind and the body.
Here is a practice you can do to develop a felt sense of safety. Once you are familiar and comfortable with it, you will be able to use it in the moment to counter the mind’s automatic negativity bias.
"Safe Place" Practice
Lie down or sit in a supported position, eyes closed or half closed. Take a moment to become aware of your senses, noticing the sounds around you, the light filtering through your eyelids, and sensations in the body. Notice your breathing, allowing your breath to flow without effort.
Bring to mind a place, real or imagined, that gives you a sense of safety. It could be a room in your house, a place in nature, or an imaginary place. Feel yourself being present in that place. Imagine the sounds that you hear, the images you see, sensations you feel. Perhaps the warm sun on your skin, if you are at the beach, or a gentle breeze, if you are by a mountain lake. Perhaps a sound of distant conversation, if you are with the people that make you feel safe.
As you imagine and feel yourself being present in that place, experience it with all your senses. As you experience the sense of safety, notice how it makes you feel in your body. Noticing overall feeling as well as specific sensations. Perhaps noticing a sense of warmth, or expansion, or comfort, or just a neutral sensation. Your forehead feeling relaxed, sensing warmth in the heart area. Noticing and experience those sensations of safety and comfort as a felt sense in your body.
With your entire body and mind, be aware of that sense of safety and comfort, knowing that this sense of safety is always inside you and you can draw on it and experience it at any moment, whenever you need to feel safe and secure.