Modern thinking about pain considers that the lived experience of pain is ‘whole person’, in other words, it is ‘me’ who is in pain and not the body part/area. By addressing the person, in effect steering thoughts, feelings and behaviours towards health, pain is overcome and a meaningful life is resumed, as defined by the individual themselves. Bearing this in mind, we can seek to achieve this with strategies that parallel the lived experience, becoming new habits that nurture change in a way that is healthy. Pain is embedded with the person, their life, their reality and how this is created by their whole self — body systems (including the brain, immune system), their body and the environment.
With pain being part of who we are at that moment, we need to be able to think clearly and logically about that moment, seeing it for what it is, and then respond in the best and wisest way. We are continually updating, with a fundamental design that means we change with every passing moment. The brain predicts what will happen next and the sum of the best guessed meaning to all sensory information is what we perceive in that moment. Each moment is of course in passing, with a new one on the way. Nothing is permanent, and this is also true for pain. Having a baseline understanding creates a new layer of thinking, which creates a new layer of lived experience each moment, and this is how we can overcome pain. You may ask why, if we are always changing, has my pain persisted; and this is a great question.
Why does pain persist? On one level, it is because there is on-going prediction of the need for protection against a perceived threat. The range of cues and triggers widens over time, as does vigilance and habits of thinking that underpin and flavour the lived experience. The sensory and sampling systems adapt and suggest threat, and the prediction goes on and on, until you take decisive action and create new thinking and behaviours to take the continual change in a new direction. To do this, as I said earlier, the new awareness and habits need to match the lived experience, and be employed moment to moment–in any given moment you need to be able to be witness to your thinking, emotional state and bodily sensations, then using this awareness to decide upon the best action (UBER-M is one of my self-coaching strategies that I have previously written about).
Putting this into practice for vulvodynia, we begin with the development of a working knowledge of the individual’s pain and what influences their pain (e.g. stress, anxiety, context, environment, anticipation, expectation, attentional bias, catastrophising, hypervigilance — to name but a few). Using this working knowledge, the person creates a sense of safety that is the foundation of the precise actions taken: specific exercises, training, general exercise, breathing/mindful techniques, re-charging (energy), movements that all form the healthy actions. This is becoming your own coach, so that at any given moment you can think and act to cultivate healthy habits, and in so doing, replace those that have been predictive of the need to protect.
The most frequently described pain experience is during intercourse with the clear impact upon the person and potentially affecting relationships and an ability to conceive. All are greatly emotive. There is often, rightly or wrongly, a sense of wanting to be healthy once again for their partner’s sake. Within this thinking, there can be a sense of guilt with the individual being hard upon themselves, the latter being a common characteristic, and one that needs to be addressed by developing kindness towards self.
Anticipation that a movement or activity will hurt sets up a cycle of protection — priming, expectant thoughts that drive tension and changes in perception, predictions of the need for protect then predominate and sure enough, the experience is painful and the cycle maintained through habit of thought and action. There are many points when new habits can be created from the moment of initiation of intercourse to during intercourse at different points (an anticipatory thought, a sensation of pain) and developing new thinking and reactions by practicing at other times — in essence reconfiguring the whole experience to resume the intimacy rather than fear of pain.
We are designed to change, and we are changing continuously — it may not always seem like it, bit if you stop for a moment and note how your thoughts, feelings and body sensations shift and move like Constable’s skies, even within a minute or two, you will be aware of this in action. This awareness opens an opportunity to consciously decide to make changes in a direction of health, and in so doing, change your pain with new realisation and action. This all begins with the understanding of pain so that you can take wise action at every moment. The skills that you develop for overcoming vulvodynia you have probably noticed will be transferable to many areas of life because this is about your lived experience, moment to moment. Many women report feeling calmer, noticing more, responding and thinking with greater clarity and generally feeling well and healthy.
Pain Coach Programme to overcome persisting pain problems — t. 07518 445493