How the Dynamic Neural Retraining System is changing my life

Hi everyone!

Today I wanted to share a bit with you about the Dynamic Neural Retraining System, or DNRS for short.

As you may know, this past fall I was diagnosed with a condition of the immune system called mast cell activation syndrome.

When I first got the diagnosis, I initially went into research mode, reading every single thing I could– every article, every single comment in patient support groups, and keeping a journal to track my symptoms.

This has always been my normal approach to dealing with health issues, and I had expected it to be the only way to deal with mast cell, as well.

However.

A few months into the process, I attended an in-person support group, where I met someone who had recovered from the same condition as me, using the Dynamic Neural Retraining System.

I’m going to be honest with you. I had never heard of DNRS before, and never would have done it if I hadn’t met someone in person who had recovered.

It took a lot for me to overcome my skepticism.  In fact, I was still fairly skeptical when I began the program — I just started doing it anyway, because one of my doctors was strongly urging me to do it, and I figured I had nothing to lose.

But the more I have been doing the program– I’ve been doing it for an hour a day, for five months now– the more I understand it, and truly believe in it.

How does DNRS work?

DNRS focuses on the idea that many complex, chronic illnesses can actually be the result of a brain that is stuck in a chronic state of fight or flight.

In DNRS, this is termed limbic system dysfunction.  (The limbic system is the part of the brain that regulates our emotional and behavioral responses, and also our response to threats– the fight or flight mechanism.  It includes the amygdala, which causes us to feel fear, and the hippocampus, one of the most important parts of the brain for memory).

If you look at the stories of the different people who have recovered using DNRS, you’ll find that the symptoms they had were all very different.

In DNRS, the focus is not on the symptoms– it’s on rewiring the brain.  

DNRS relies the concept of neuroplasticity– meaning the brain can change, based on new experiences.

If the brain can be changed by trauma– whether it’s emotional or physical– into a chronic state of fight or flight– it can also change back into a healthy state.   

That’s where DNRS comes in.  When you do the program, you are essentially following a series of steps, writing exercises, and visualizations– every day– to help the brain form new, healthy pathways.

It’s more than just positive thinking– it’s more like a practice. 

I think of it like this.  We all know we should think positively.  We all know we should occasionally do things to calm down our system, such as meditate.

But DNRS really takes it a step further.  It’s not just about relaxation– it’s actually about building new brain pathways.

In the five months I’ve been doing DNRS, I’ve actually felt this happen.  I almost think of my brain as like a construction zone.

Since doing DNRS, I’ve actually felt my brain change, in a way that totally matches up with some of the things I’ve learned about the brain, emotion, and memory, in my science classes.  (I’ve actually taken a neuroscience course, which really helped me to understand what was going on).

Over these five months it’s become much easier for my brain to get out of fight or flight and access happy emotions and memories, because I literally spend an hour every day activating those neural pathways.

The program isn’t some magic thing that will only work for some people.  It’s about practice.  Practice makes perfect.  If you really do it for the recommended time– a minimum of an hour a day, every day for at least 6 months– you will see results.

Getting the brain out of its limbic system trauma loop.

So, if you read my blog now, you’ll see that I don’t talk about my specific mast cell symptoms very much.  Of course, this is the complete opposite of the approach I’d planned to take.

But one of the main principles of DNRS is that, once you’re dealing with a chronic condition, focusing on your symptoms can actually reinforce that state of fight or flight.  So we actually try not to talk about our symptoms (except, of course, in cases where’s absolutely necessary, such as when at a doctor’s appointment).

This took me a while to wrap my mind around, but over time, it made more and more sense to me.  Focusing on my health didn’t cause the problem, but now that I was in this situation, I had to do everything possible to get my brain out of chronic fight or flight.

That’s why you won’t find me writing too much about my physical symptoms in this post, or on my blog in general.  I will say that I have seen an improvement in my physician symptoms, and that I have every reason to recommend DNRS to others.

I do want to tell my whole story at some point, but for now, my brain is a “construction zone” of hope and healing, so the rest will have to come later :)

However, here are some of the DNRS recovery stories that have personally inspired me on my journey– definitely check these out!

(The first three people on this list used DNRS to recover from mast cell activation, as well as other conditions!).

I will be explaining more about DNRS in my next post– including how the medical community is beginning to take notice– so stay tuned!

img_4138
Attempt at a victory selfie after a particularly good doctor’s appointment– I’m exhausted cause I was so nervous for the appointment, but I got good news!

The story of my wrist, and the pot of boiling water (Finally, my own pain science metaphor!).

img_5765

Using metaphors to explain how pain works

One of the original reasons I started this blog was to get the word out about the various pain scientists and educators whose work has touched my life (including, but not limited to, Neil Pearson and Lorimer Moseley).

From them, I’ve learned that pain isn’t here to make us suffer (although it seems like it sometimes).  Ultimately, it’s here to keep us safe.

It’s a protective mechanism, and sometimes it can try a little too hard to keep us safe.  A sensitive nervous system is like an overactive alarm system, or an overprotective friend.

It can “zoom in” or “turn up the volume” on pain signals it thinks you need to pay more attention to.   This is what I call the “up” dial.

Your body can also turn down the volume on pain.

There may come a time when your nervous system decides it’s more important to “turn down the volume” on pain– or even block out pain signals completely.

Normally, this “down dial” isn’t something we are able to access consciously.  It’s something our body can do automatically, in times of great danger, if those pain signals are distracting us from getting out of a dangerous situation.

Neil Pearson, for example, tells the story of a patient he once treated who had been hit by a drunk driver on the way to work.  He woke up upside down in his burning car, and realized he had lost an arm in the accident.

The man managed to extricate himself from the car, collect his missing arm, and walk back up to the side of the highway all without feeling any pain.  This is because, in that moment, his body knew that feeling pain would take away from his chances of survival– the most important thing was his getting to safety.  Once he was safely in an ambulance in his way to the hospital, then the pain set in.

Your body has the ability to adjust the level of pain you perceive.

This is a survival mechanism that normally kicks in under emergency circumstances.

However, it is something we can also learn to do consciously with practice, using various techniques to tell our body to “turn down the volume” on pain.  That is the focus of pain neurophysiology education, the approach to pain management that changed my life.

My own metaphor

The really good news about this approach is that you don’t actually have to be a neuroscientist, or even have a huge scientific background, to learn how to do it.

Somehow, once you start to switch over from viewing pain as an enemy to a friend or a guardian, it can start to make an immediate difference in how you perceive it.

That’s why I’ve been so determined to spread the word about some of the metaphors that have helped me.  However, I’ve felt a bit limited in doing this, since I’m also interested in not plagiarizing other’s work.

So today at long last, I got my own metaphor. 

It’s not particularly wild or dramatic.  In fact, it’s pretty subtle (and also makes me not sound terribly coordinated).  However, I think it does a great job of explaining in a down-to-earth way exactly how the nervous system can choose to turn pain signals out, if it benefits your survival to do so.

It’s a small thing, really.  (And actually, it illustrates to you how absent-minded I can be at times, but that’s another matter!).

I was cooking dinner, boiling some ravioli.  They looked about done, and I was starving.  So, without really thinking, I lifted the pot off of the burner with one hand, and started taking it over to the sink to drain.

Halfway to the sink, I realized the pot was much heavier than I’d anticipated.  I realized I hadn’t really been paying attention, and it had been a mistake to pick it up.   Now I felt like my wrist was about to give out, and I was already halfway to the sink.

I quickly thought through my options.  I wanted to put it down instantly, but there wasn’t a clear space on the counter.  I wanted to put another hand up to steady the pot, but the handle was too small and I would have needed a potholder.

My wrist was really starting to hurt, and for a second I considered just dropping the pot altogether.

But no.  I had a vision of scalding water splashing everywhere, including on me, burning my skin.

And just like that– that very second– all the pain in my wrist disappeared.  Nope, my body said.  We are NOT dropping a pot of boiling water on ourselves today.  

My nervous system made an executive decision, in that instant, to block all the pain out.  Ultimately, the prospect of spilling boiling water all over myself was more of a threat to my survival than the pain in my wrist.

I was able to get the pot of water all the way over to the sink without incident.  About 30 seconds after I put it down, that’s when the pain came back.

Like Neil Pearson’s patient making it safely into an ambulance, my nervous system had blocked the pain out just long enough for me to safely put the pot of water down.  Once that was over, the pain came back, to remind me that indeed, I had put my wrist through something strenuous.

It’s been a few hours and my wrist is just a little bit sore.  I know it will go away– it wasn’t a permanent injury or anything.  I just strained it a little bit by trying to carry something it wasn’t strong enough for.  (This is a good reminder that I need to pay more attention in the kitchen, even if I am spaced out and hungry!).

But I wanted to share this with you because I think it provides a good example of how pain isn’t always a clear-cut indicator of what, exactly, is going on in our body. 

Instead, it represents our body’s “safety monitoring system,” warning us about potential threats to our survival, and making sure we choose the course of action that’s most likely to keep us safe.

Of course, if you have chronic pain day in and day out, it can be hard to see pain as a protective mechanism. 

I said it was a protective mechanism– I never said it always perfectly.

Sometimes in the case of chronic pain, the “up” dial can get stuck on.

That’s why, again, it is so important to know that your pain also has a “down” dial, and that, with practice, you can learn to access it.

I hope you found this post helpful!

For more on the metaphors which can help you understand pain, I recommend you check out my posts:

As well as:

That’s all for now!  

Any questions, leave a comment below or email me at sunlightinwinter12@gmail.com!

Pain is like Memory: Dr. Jay Joshi on Central Sensitization

Okay.  I’ve really been looking forward to publishing this post.

Here, we’re revisiting the same great talk by pain physician Dr. Jay Joshi.  In my last post, I outlined what Dr. Joshi says are the four main categories of pain.

Central sensitization is the type that is, unfortunately, the least understood.  And it’s also the type that’s had the biggest impact on my life to date.

What is it?

Central sensitization is a process through which the central nervous system learns to become more sensitive to, or amplify, pain signals.

I struggled with it for years and thought I was crazy, because I had pain that came and went throughout my own body that most of the doctors and physical therapists I saw couldn’t explain.

Central sensitization is a form of memory.

Generally, we think of central sensitization as a sort of a disorder, because of course, it causes so much pain and suffering.

However, as I’ve touched upon in previous posts, central sensitization actually has its roots in some of the same neural mechanisms that allow us to learn new things and store memories.  We “learn” from pain just as we learn from anything else, and our nervous systems can be changed by it.

As Dr. Joshi says:

“Central sensitization is what happens when the brain is exposed to certain experiences or certain memories.  It’s life… it’s being a human.

When you have a certain memory that forms it, becomes part of who you are… it becomes part of your experience.  And your behavior changes as a result of that.

This is not something that happens randomly…  This is something that happens to the neurophysiology of your brain.  It forms memories.  Those circuits get hardwired on your little ‘hard drive’ that’s known as a brain.  The same thing that happens with pain, when you have a chronic pain stimulus.”

The process of central sensitization is not separate from our brain’s other functions– rather, it belongs to them.

I found this happened to me so often, over the years, before I even knew what central sensitization was.

I’d have a painful experience– the first one was when I threw my back out at age 21— and it was like my nervous system was determined not to let me forget about it afterwards.

According to Dr. Joshi, this is exactly how central sensitization occurs, after a painful or traumatic event:

“You have a painful experience, and usually one of the first things that happens is your brain says ‘hey don’t do that again.'”

It’s trying to protect you from doing the same thing that might have caused you to become injured in the first place.

But what happens when that signal doesn’t stop? 

In cases like mine, this process can go on indefinitely.  Your brain keeps trying to protect you, telling you not to repeat certain activities, long past what’s actually necessary or conducive to your well-being.

This is called the wind-up phenomenon— when the brain’s protective mode stays on, and never gets the signal to turn “off” like it should.  Instead, it just keeps repeating the message of “don’t do that again”– even if it’s something that, technically, should be safe for you to do.

Once this process, the pain can sort of build on itself, like a snowball effect.  And you can remain in pain, long after the original injury that might have set all this off as healed.

Does all chronic pain cause central sensitization?

Dr. Joshi explains that chronic pain is likely to lead to some degree of central sensitization.  (This is significantly higher than other estimates I’ve heard, such as Dr. Elliot Krane’s figure of 10%).

However, I think Dr. Joshi’s explanation makes a lot of sense.  After all, when you experience chronic pain, you’re basically bombarding your nervous system with opportunities to practice sending pain signals.  Why wouldn’t it get better at doing so, the same way you can get better at playing the piano or riding a bike?

Central sensitization is still a part of my life.

I don’t expect to ever be able to totally reverse the process that first began, for me, at age 21.

However, I was able to make a lot of positive changes and gain back a lot of control over my body through pain neurophysiology education, which I write about a lot on this blog.  (Basically, it involves teaching your nervous system what it’s like to feel safe again, so that it can turn the “volume” back down on the pain).

There’s a lot more to say!

Dr. Joshi has some great thoughts on how to improve the medical profession’s understanding of central sensitization, as well as ketamine infusions– a potentially powerful treatment for patients with central sensitization.

I’ll be sharing more on this coming up– hope you liked this post!

The push & pull of when to keep going, and when to rest

Yesterday I was trying to drive home in rush hour traffic, along a route I wasn’t familiar with, and I ended up taking one wrong turn after another.

For those that know Boston, I was trying to get on Storrow Drive West, but somehow ended up going up Route 1 North, over the Tobin Bridge.

I took an exit and tried to turn around, only to find I kept making more wrong turns.  I thought I was going up a ramp to get back to Route 1, only to realize I was driving on something I wasn’t quite sure was a road.  (By the way, normally I’m a very good driver, it was just a weird area!).

And then, the next thing I know, I ended up in Chelsea, driving up this beautiful hill towards a residential area, and I look out and see this as my view:

Don’t worry, I pulled over to take these photos!

For some reason, it got me thinking of all the twists and turns in my journey.

All the times I’ve been mad at myself for trying too hard (like starving myself and running a billion miles a week cause I was afraid I was going to get fat).

And all the times when, looking back, I was afraid to try too hard and so gave up too soon.

***

Honestly, what I think now is that you just never know what lies ahead. And blaming yourself and giving up are, in a way, just our attempts to try to have control over a difficult situation.

The older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve learned, the more counter-productive I’ve seen that self-blame can be.

I‎t just isn’t useful; it doesn’t prove a point; it doesn’t get us any closer to the answers.

The truth is that there are answers I’ve found through hard work, and there are answers I only found because I happened to stumble upon them.

The one thing I wish I could really change, though, is all the times I held back because I was afraid of looking too hard. As if giving in and admitting I truly had a problem was the same as giving in to it, when actually that’s what it was going to take for me to overcome it.

Sometimes the right path will look like the wrong one, or the one that couldn’t possibly work (like me driving on a road I wasn’t quite sure was a road).

You just have to keep going and have enough faith in yourself to know that, ultimately, you’ll figure it out if something is or isn’t right for you.

***

Someone asked me the other day how I found my physical therapist Paula– the person who finally really helped me with the SI joint.

The answer is simple, but also complex.

Technically, I found her because I happened to do a Google search for “physical therapy sacroiliac joint” and the name of my hometown (where I was living at the time). The website for the practice she worked at popped up, with her online staff bio, where it listed the SI joint as one of clinical interests. Simple, right?

But there are so many more layers to this. Such as the fact that she’d been working there for over five years, and somehow never came up in any of my millions of Google searches. (I’m still not sure how this happened, if someone redesigned their website at just the right time, or what).

I’d looked and looked and thought I knew of everyone in our area, but somehow, I’d missed her.

***

I wasn’t going to look at all, actually.  I’d already seen FOUR other physical therapists, all of whom had either failed to help me, or made things worse.  I felt done.

It was my ex-boyfriend Tim who convinced me to look again.   He pointed out that maybe this was just what it took for me to find answers.  He got me to see that maybe four physical therapists wasn’t really that many.   Not if my entire life was on hold.

He told me about one of his friends, who, for years, suffered from constant sinus infections.  This friend saw multiple doctors who said there was nothing they could do, yet he refused to take no for an answer and kept seeking out other opinions.  Finally, he saw a specialist who told him that by luck of the draw, he’d been born with nasal passages that were too narrow.  This doctor was able to fix the problem with minor surgery.

So there are no hard and fast rules here. There’s no way to guarantee an easy answer.

The only guarantee is that if you waste time judging yourself, or being afraid to admit that you really have a problem, or assuming that no one will be able to help you… you’ll be more likely to push away your chances to find answers.

I finally found Paula through luck, probably because my search engine results changed.

But I also only found her because I had someone who cared about me to tell me I was judging myself and my situation too harshly; that I was jumping to conclusions about not being able to find help.

***

This started off as a post about finding answers, but in a way this post has turned into somewhat of a thank-you to Tim, as well.

So thank you, Tim. (We’re still friends and I’ll be sending him the link to this after I hit publish).

I hope you all are able to believe in yourselves and keep fighting.

And I hope you also, in one way or another, have a Tim.

Seeing things clearly, without that added layer of judgement on top

I struggled with what to say on my blog this week, but I finally landed upon this idea as the thing that resonated with me at the current moment.

Something I’ve been realizing, more and more every day, is how much time I’ve spent judging myself for the problems I’ve had.  Not actively trying to solve them… just judging.

On some level I didn’t trust myself.  After all all of my difficulties in getting diagnosed and treated… at some point, I developed the belief that whatever health issues I was having, no one would really be able to help me.  My issues would probably always be too complex for any one person to truly understand.

From there, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that played out from one issue to another.  Compartment syndrome, central sensitization, sacroiliac joint dysfunction.   I didn’t really believe there were answers out there, so I didn’t try that hard to look.  I gave up before the fight was over (until things got so bad that I finally didn’t).

Now I realize that, just because other people doubted me, I didn’t have to doubt myself.  And maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to wait for things to get so bad before I took action.

In a way, my issues are too complex for any one person to understand, other than me.   I did have to step up, do my own research, and keep track of so many things myself.  But now I see that that’s a reflection on our health care system, not on me.

Everyone is rushed; insurance companies don’t pay for long enough visits, let enough adequate treatments.  (I personally feel that most of these efforts to reduce costs on the front end ultimately end up driving up costs on the back end, as people develop more serious conditions that could have been monitored or treated before they became more serious.  But I digress).

There was never any real reason for me to lose faith in myself.  My problems were real, and they had real answers.  (And you know what?  Even if they were in my head, mental health concerns deserve to be addressed too).

It’s like that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

For so long I gave so much of my power away… why?

There are so many bigger things happening in the world.  Why am I wasting time judging myself and holding back, when I could actually be contributing to something larger than myself?

For anyone who’s been struggling to make sense of what’s been going on in the world, I stumbled upon another amazing quote today, that was just exactly what I needed:

22195474_1582684825088140_2310980932586532929_n.jpg

I love this, so much.  Do justly.  Love mercy,  Walk humbly.  Nowhere in there does it say “second-guess yourself for trying to heal and then do nothing.”

I’m done trying to see things through the lens of “perfect” or how things “should be.”  I want to see things clearly (both in terms of the way I see others, and myself).

Judging yourself is really just a waste of time.

I want to have compassion for others, and maybe, for the first time in my life, also for myself.  I guess right now I’m learning what that means.

***

This post isn’t supposed to be about just me (although it kind of seems like it, now that I read it over).  It’s actually supposed to be about getting “me” out of the way.  To stop getting caught up in a cycle where I judge myself instead of doing things, for myself or for others.

If you’re reading this, I hope you know what I mean, and that maybe this post was helpful to you, too.