It’s fascinating how little sensory cues can bring us right back to a memory, isn’t it? Like just this morning at the end of my workout, I was quickly transported back to memories of playing high school football — and it felt real. As if I were back on the field with all the sensations and emotions my mind could conjure up. And no, I wasn’t reveling in the “glory days.”

A smell or sound, even a physical position can trip those neurotags — a specific pattern of neuron activation that produces a specific response — to fire off. Perhaps it was the sensation of perspiration or the feeling of fatigue that tripped off my particular tag. Luckily for me it was a pleasant memory. But sometimes, these memories aren’t so pleasant…

Sometimes our neurotags get fired off from a sensation of which we aren’t even consciously aware. And we perceive it as negative — particularly a traumatic memory or what feels like physical pain. 

Neurotags light up a number of brain areas as a signature of a particular behavior.

But is it real?
 Has anything changed physically that would indicate physical damage? 

Just as I wasn’t actually back on the football field, many times we can perceive pain when it’s not real in the sense that there’s no current physical damage. Brain regions like the amygdala, hippocampus, and anterior cingulate cortex (areas involved in memory and threat perception) work together in an effort to protect you from possible danger when certain sensations reach a critical threshold.

​Sensations you may not even be aware of so you’re shocked when your back starts hurting again.

​But once those neurotags are activated, you are transported right you back to when you hurt in the first place and maybe even making you hurt right now.

So Try This (Mind-Body DIY)

Create space — recognize what is occurring in real-time. Your thoughts are real, but are they true? Are they an accurate representation of you right now?

​Examine how your body is reacting currently and know that this is just your nervous system’s best guess at how to protect you from a perceived threat. 

Free yourself from the compulsion of doing what you’ve always done: tensing up, breathing rapidly, reaching for Tylenol, or posting how bad you hurt on Facebook.

Do something different:

  • Alter your movement — find a movement that does not hurt (there always is one) and explore it for at least 5 minutes focusing on what you feel. Creating this physical safe space of exploration is so powerful in modifying those pain memories. The more space you create, the more capacity you have to do something about it.
  • Change your environment — go for a walk. Walking outside is one of the best things you can do for your brain as it changes our brain activity and calms the nervous system. Rarely do I have a client who does not experience a reduction in pain after walking outside.

These pain memories are real, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept them as fact.

​- Seth

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