Neuroception, Pain and the Body

Learn why understanding your relationship to your body is vital to reducing pain.


If someone had told me four years ago that I would experience moments of my life pain-free, I would have angrily told them that they don’t understand my problem. But, one day, as I sat teaching a yoga nidra class, it happened. And, not just for one moment, or one day, but for five days. To put it lightly, my mind was completely blown. Thus began my journey into understanding how the body affects the mind, and how the mind affects the body, especially as it relates to physical healing.

Now, after almost three years of studying the mindbody connection - and focusing those studies on pain and trauma - the complex picture of how I experienced a change in my pain is just starting to come to light. I will never claim to understand all the intricacies of what it is to be human, but in uncovering just some of its complexity, I have been opened up to the myriad of ways we can use the body and the mind for our own healing.

It can be helpful to understand what I mean when I reference “body” or “mind.” From a more clinical standpoint, I would say that the brain is what controls the physiology of the body. But what inputs determine how that brain functions? This is where it gets complicated.

Both the physical body and the mind (all the ways we think about ourselves, the world, all stored emotions and past experiences) affect the way our brain orchestrates our entire being. And this also stands true for how our brain determines pain.

It is common that we tend to think of pain as a direct indication of damage in the body. In reality, pain is an alert system. It is a perceptual process. Pain is an alarm telling us that we are in danger and need to change our behavior to avoid harm. This means that you can experience pain without any true tissue damage. It also means that if you experience tissue damage that is not perceived as threatening, it likely will not cause pain.

In uncovering the body’s influence on the functioning of the brain, the first concept that can be important to understand is called neuroception – the process by which the nervous system detects levels of safety or danger in the environment. This process is not necessarily under conscious control and is primarily supported by sensory inputs and associated cortices. In other words, the level of safety is often determined by inputs from our senses (body) and our interpretations or associated interpretations of what those sensations might mean (mind). Body tension, changes in breath or posture, sensations in the body, or sensory input associated with certain emotions or memories all contribute.

Body-based approaches to decreasing pain begin with bringing awareness to the state of the body, the sensory input coming in, and inviting an intention of curiosity and observation to those inputs. As we begin to build body awareness through observation, this begins to decouple the brain’s interpretation of these sensory inputs as dangerous or safe from it’s habitual unconscious reaction, which, for many of us, may be pain. We replace the unconscious reaction with observation, with curiosity. Additionally, we begin to become aware of ways we can augment the sensory input coming in through the body to positively influence our neuroception towards safety, thereby decreasing pain.

The first step in accessing the power of the body to change our experience of pain is awareness. Generate awareness through this short practice:

In yoga therapy, we often spend a considerable amount of time on breathwork as a starting place. In the tradition of yoga, the breath offers direct access to our prana, or life force, so it is an important part of any therapeutic plan. As a western medicine trained physician assistant, I also see the breath as our bridge; a function of the body that is unconsciously controlled and often our “first responder” in settings of stress or danger, but also a function that can be consciously controlled. It offers an amazing opportunity for us to harness our own nervous system consciously.

It is normal for us to be completely unaware of our breath. Similar to exploring the body, harnessing the power of the breath starts with awareness. Explore your own breath with this practice:

As we get more deeply into awareness with the body, we begin to uncover practices that positively influence our neuroception. We may even find that particular practices also change our pain. Allowing a noticing of change can be the first step into an exploration of your own capacity to heal your pain symptoms using body-based practices. And with repetition, these practices then become a resource, and, eventually, a new habit of your nervous system.

For those of you seeking additional resources around this topic, feel free to use the recordings in this post, including the one below about exploring emotions in the body. Additionally, I always recommend exploring apps, such as Insight Timer, which offers yoga nidra recordings free of charge. And if you’d like to know more about ways to explore body-based approaches to changing pain through one on one consultation, please feel free to reach out to me anytime.

About Michelle Grim

Michelle Grim is a physician assistant who has been practicing for the past 11 years, primarily working with patients with breast cancer at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. In addition to her work with patients in and around breast cancer, she also has been teaching yoga for the past ten years and, more recently, has been studying the field of mindbody medicine through the path of yoga therapy. With her background in western medicine, over the past three years she has focused her work in yoga on pain and trauma, offering support to patients experiencing chronic pain. Yoga therapy has offered a framework for exploring the many mindbody practices that can alter physical, emotional, and spiritual health in her patients. Her work acknowledges the complexity of the human experience of wellness, and honors the many layers of ourselves that contribute to our feeling of health. It is her belief in our capacity for healing, regardless of diagnosis, that fuels her current pursuits in mind body medicine.

To learn more about Michelle, if you have questions about her work, or if you are interested in working with her, please visit her website.

Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide medical advice. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, which do not necessarily represent those of Curable or other contributors to the Curable site.

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