Nervous System Pattern: When PAIN Becomes a Recurring Neural Loop


Hey it’s Elisha, and welcome back to another deep dive into nervous system patterns, aka our automated behaviors that dictate our unconscious thoughts, feelings and behaviors in life until we make them conscious.

Today’s topic is actually where it all started for me – we’re talking about when PAIN becomes a nervous system pattern. Did you even know that pain can become a nervous system pattern?

I didn’t either until one very special client of mine taught me about this in great detail.

Did you know that the term “neuroscientist” didn’t even exist until about 10 years ago? I heard Andrew Huberman – a neuroscientist – say this in an interview, and it blows my mind. Because 10 years ago I was beginning to talk about neural loops…and the nervous system. And neural plasticity. I had no idea neuroscience as a field unto itself was just getting started.

When I began working full time with people in pain in 2012 in Boulder, Colorado – I was committed to every client and solving their pain. I was determined to figure out what was at the root of it, even if that root reason was supposedly “beyond my pay grade.”

I realized, from my own experience trying to get professional help for trauma, anxiety, gut issues and knee pain without much success, that healing and finding answers wasn’t about credentials or licensure…it was about curiosity, gumption and perseverance.

I wasn’t about to let my clients down when I knew I had deep wells of curiosity, lots of gumption and more perseverance than was probably good for me.

So I started researching neuroscience, neural loops and myelination pathways…which are some of the terms I first used to describe what I now call nervous system patterns.

All of these patterns I’m sharing with you in this series – they all started with my clients who were experiencing persistent physical pain.

Why were some of my clients getting immediate results, while other clients’ pain seemed to stubbornly persist, despite our agreement that they were doing “everything right”?

Enter Deserae. One of my favorite client stories of all time was also the “case” that helped me understand just how powerful our nervous systems can be…for good or bad.

I met Deserae in 2015 when she came to my office for an initial appointment after nearly giving up on her body’s ability to heal.

She was 37, and had undergone hip replacement surgery 6 months before, believing that the surgery would be an answer to decades of prayer.

When she was 19 she got in a car accident and broke her hip. The doctors told her there was nothing they could do because she was too young for hip replacement surgery. So they told her she’d have to live with the pain until she could get that surgery.

Deserae, being stubbornly positive and optimistic, decided to become a marathon runner and a wilderness therapy guide…despite daily pain.

Eventually, the pain – and the years of pushing through it – caught up to her. She didn’t walk for more than 10 minutes in the 6 YEARS leading up to her surgery.

When she heard the news that she’d finally be able to get that hip replacement, she believed it would be THE answer for her…and she’d be able to start walking, biking, running and hiking mountains again.

She had the surgery, did the prescribed 6 months of physical therapy, did some talk therapy, hypnotherapy, acupuncture and massage…and was no better off from a pain perspective than before the surgery.

The surgeon declared her surgery a success, and the doctors and physical therapists told her she had a case of hip bursitis (that 6 months of PT had not resolved). Hmmm….hip bursitis in a metal joint? Interesting.

During our first session I did what I always do – I mapped her lower body to find any imbalances left to right and front to back, in order to figure out what was causing this pain. I fully expected her right leg to be the tight one, because it was her left hip that had been broken since she was 19 and then underwent surgery. But her left quad, quad hip flexor, IT Band and adductor all seemed more adhesed to me.

But in our second session together, while working on her right quad…I was inspired to blurt out:

“You’ve had to be really strong for a long time. Do you think you can let go now?”

Nothing happened during that session. But the next time she stepped into my office she practically ran in to ask me “Is it normal, do you think, that I’ve been crying ever since I left last time?”

Whenever she tells the story now, she says that she cried every day for 6 weeks after that second session.

Living with a broken hip required her to be tough, to endure, to push through and try to LIVE her life.

It also meant that her nervous system had memorized the hip pain, along with the enduring, pushing through and being strong. It had become her identity at a time when she was still neuroplastic. Our brains and nervous systems create our most persistent patterns up until age 25, when we stop being subconsciously neuroplastic. We can still change our brains and nervous systems after age 25, but we have to do so consciously.

Deserae worked with me every week for a few months, and her goal was to be able to hike after her wedding that summer.

I kept telling her I believed she could run and hike again, and she kept telling me to hold that belief for her until she was ready to believe it herself.

Deserae had to UNLEARN that hip pain at the nervous system – or subconscious psychological – level. She had literally memorized the pain and all the ways she’d have to cope with it at age 19…so it was a process to undo not just the physical aspect, but the beliefs that were now ingrained into her physiology. Beliefs like “I’m always going to be in pain, I have to learn to live with this pain, I have to be strong, I AM strong, I won’t let this pain stop me…” Pain, pain, pain…that word was a mantra she had repeated so often it became her reality even after there was no more physiological cause for pain. 

Thankfully, she is a smart woman and a trained psychotherapist, so she knew how to let herself feel the emotions and release them from her body.

I convinced her to go hiking with me about 6 weeks into working together. She didn’t believe she could hike yet, and she was scared…but I knew she could. So I told her we’d go together and if anything happened on the trail, I was not afraid to step on her out there in the dirt or on a rock! Whatever it took, I’d be there for her and get her back down.

We hiked about 45 minutes that day before turning around, and she was elated with her 40 minutes total. But I wasn’t going to let her off so easily.

A week later I talked her into one of the toughest short hikes in Boulder, Colorado – Mount Sanitas. A rocky trail that gains 1,343ft of elevation in a mile and a half.

She kept telling me not to jinx her by saying we would make it to the top. We’d wait and see. But I couldn’t help myself, I kept telling her “we’re going to make it!”

Approaching and then standing on that summit with her is one of my life highlights, and a moment I will never ever forget.

When she realized she was there – at the top of a mountain, somewhere she hadn’t been for over 6 years and wasn’t sure she’d ever see again – she turned to me with big teardrops spilling from her eyes and asked over and said “are you kidding me right now!? Is this real? Are you for real? I’m standing on a mountain! This is my DREAM Is this real?”

That’s how you break a nervous system pattern. You find proof that you’re not broken, you go do the thing you believe you can’t due to pain, and when you do it…you celebrate with your whole being and a lot of emotion, like your dreams just came true.

More often than not, we have to show ourselves we CAN do something, despite our nervous systems telling us to doubt, telling us to be careful, telling us to play it safe…in order to find out that we can do far more than we give ourselves credit for.

Our bodies are more resilient and adaptable than we think they are, but we need to be resilient and adaptable in our consciousness too. The body can guide us, or WE can guide the body. My preference is to do both, in partnership.

After that hike, Deserae started walking, biking and hiking without any pain. I sent her to my trainer and Kinetix Practitioner Jason to get her glutes firing. She married her best friend and got pregnant, and had her baby without any hip pain or flare ups.

I believe the reason the PT had not worked is because they weren’t addressing the underlying issues in her nervous system of holding on, the identity of being a strong person every day, and believing – at the nervous system level – that life is pain, that every day is a struggle to overcome or get through.

Think about phantom limb pain – the limb is gone, but the brain still thinks it’s there and the person feels pain in a nonexistent limb because that’s how powerful our brains are.

You can go through a successful surgery and structurally be “sound” and still have pain…if your brain continues perceiving the pain you walked into surgery with.

Were there physiological reasons Deserae was in pain? Sure. Maybe.

She had fascial adhesions and imbalances and her left gluteus medius needed help firing.

But you can have all those things be true and NOT be in pain. 

Pain is the perception that we might be in danger. 

Her nervous system was the dominant factor, and by letting go and unleashing those tears of grief and relief that flowed out of her for 6 weeks…she could finally let her body be a whole body, instead of a broken one. 

Sometimes, we need to cry tears of relief in order to let go of old identities that got us through hard times, but now keep us stuck.

Deserae could finally LIVE, instead of enduring each day.

And allowing herself to experience that change with her body and emotions made all the difference.

So if pain has become a nervous system pattern for you, it will be something your brain perceives, despite – possibly – no evidence there’s anything “wrong.” But please be aware there’s always something doctor’s can tell us that suggests our body is slightly defective. Desearae was told she had hip bursitis – but did she really? All that means to me is that someone’s hip joint isn’t getting enough blood flow. By my definition, that was true. But conventional medicine would usually treat something like that with a tissue numbing corrosive cortisone injection. 

Pain can be a nervous system pattern related to trauma – physical, emotional or a combination.

The primary sign or symptom is that you wake up each day expecting to feel pain specific to your history. And so you do. 

It could also be related to beliefs you have, maybe beliefs that were once true…and aren’t any longer.

In order to break these patterns, you’ll need to figure out if the perception is due to physical injury and trauma, or emotional. Or both.

Often, one becomes the other until they’re intimately comingled in the experience. Pain after all, can feel traumatic.

Think about Deserae – living with a broken hip at just 19 years old, and spending her entire 20’s enduring pain only to enter her 30’s and not even be able to walk for more than 10 minutes at age 37, getting surgery and doing everything right and STILL being in pain…

Here’s how to break this pattern:

  1. The best way I know how to break these patterns, and I’m saying this from personal experience breaking my own nervous system patterns of pain, is to get to know your body. Commit yourself to understanding what a human body is made of and how it functions. Make sense of your brain, your nervous system, your fascia. When you seek to understand how you’re designed, what you’re built from and how human beings THRIVE – you can begin to crack the code on your own pain. 
  2. Make sense of neuroscience for yourself, and how pain actually happens – so you can demystify this thing we call pain and stop feeling afraid of it. Pain is the perception that we’re in danger. That’s it. You have to figure out if your tissues are actually damaged, or whether your nervous system is triggering the fire alarm for OTHER reasons, like emotional or belief reasons. 
  3. Identify the primary nervous system patterns you’ve adopted that are keeping you STUCK, and replace them with new ones. You can use this series to begin that investigation, because I’ve given you the primary patterns I’ve seen working with thousands of people. 
  4. If you come to the conclusion that you ACTUALLY have tissue damage or some kind of real physical danger, like pelvic instability, glutes not firing, fascia that is so restricted your joints aren’t getting blood leading to all the ITIS’s…then you should know what to do. Release fascia, find the imbalances, get your muscles firing etc. 
  5. On the other hand, if you come to the conclusion that your pain is due to perceiving danger because of a nervous system pattern, related to or unrelated to trauma – then you may need to go on a journey of self reclamation and training yourself how to perceive possibility instead of impossibility; aliveness and potential instead of risk and danger. Those of us with patterns like this – and I count myself among this group – we have to begin to perceive that we are ALIVE, that we are whole, that we can take risks and go on adventures and we will be there to take care of our bodies when they need help to perform well. But we need to STOP perceiving dangers that were only present in childhood and are irrelevant now. And then, at some point, if we are really to break this pattern…we have to BELIEVE these things I just mentioned with our whole being and have an emotional and physiological experience that rewires our nervous system perception of our own being and our own body. I had my moment of crying in awe and relief like Des in the summer of 2013 in the Tetons. She had to have that moment at the top of Mt. Sanitas – a hike she once believed was impossible – in order to completely reverse her patterns. Your moment will be unique to you, but you will find it in an activity that represents FREEDOM and ALIVENESS to you.

I’m on a mission to get this information out there for those of you that are committed to your own freedom, to coming fully alive, to being fully human…so please share these nervous system videos and share your stories of changing your patterns. If you have a great story, please email [email protected] and let me cheer you on and celebrate your evolution. 

Thank you for watching, and I hope to see you for our LAST nervous system video next week.

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