Relieving Chronic Pain:Loving the Inner Lizard

April 30th, 2010

A client recently asked for help with an inexplicable pain in her left shoulder. There was no recent injury or incident that directly or indirectly caused the pain. I asked her to describe the sensation she felt in her shoulder.

“Small, round, heavy, like a dark cloud.”

She wondered aloud if it was a bursitis, similar to one experienced in the opposite shoulder, related to a work injury that occurred more than 11 years ago. I asked if there was any particular person from her former workplace now coming to mind.

“There were many unresolved issues from work.”


I asked if any particular person came to mind as she focused her attention on her shoulder.

“My boss.”

“If your shoulder could speak, what would it do or say to your boss right now?”

(Pause.) “It wants to punch her in the nose.”

With the image of her boss’ face in her mind we did slow motion punching gesture in the air. She laughed. Her arm began to tingle through to the fingertips and the pain magically disappeared.

The body stores all memory. When we experience a real or perceived threat, the most primitive part of our brain, the brain stem, which we refer to as “reptilian brain,” triggers the nervous system to fight or flee. The body releases hormones that makes our hearts race, the blood moves to the extremities and our focus narrows. Nowadays we seldom have to scramble up a tree to escape from a wild tiger.

However, while our daily external conditions are less precarious, our threat response may be triggered while being reprimanded by an authority figure at a workplace or by engaging in a challenging relationship. In difficult interpersonal situations, we often hold back our impulses to strike, yell or kick. In general this is a good thing. We do not wish to physically harm another being. We can resort to dialogue rather than dueling to resolve difficult situations and no one gets physically harmed in the process.

However, the lizard doesn’t understand negotiation. The lizard only knows that it wants to rip someone’s head off. Every time the lizard brain perceives a signal in the form of a threatening voice, the familiar scent of the boss’s perfume, even the sight of a a familiar-looking car model parked in a nearby lot, the lizard brain involuntarily triggers the nervous system to respond with the flood of hormones, tightening of the muscles and the impulse to fight or flee. It’s just that the rest of our brain doesn’t immediately make the connection.

When we hold our bodies back from responding in these situations, our inner lizard gets confused. It receives the impulse to move, but remains still. The energy in the body remains bound up in the system which over time may manifest as pain in the shoulder, pain in the hip, pain in the foot. Inexplicable chronic pain. The dull ache that cannot be attributed to any accident or injury. In extreme cases, an incomplete defense response, the learned inability to fight may cause the body to turn on itself and manifest as frozen shoulder, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia. A strong desire to escape, or an incomplete fleeing response, may develop into severe anxiety or panic attacks.

When these incidents occurred a long time ago, perhaps when we were young adults, children, or possibly even earlier, how can we work to resolve the issue and make the pain go away?

The body stores all memory.

Trust the body.

Pay attention to the pain.

Focus on the pure quality of sensation.

Notice words, images or people bubbling up in the periphery.

Linger with these sensations that are connected to these words, images or people.

The body is attempting to heal itself. It needs to move. Long ago, an interrupted incomplete defensive response took place that lizard brain remembers through the body and has been nudging you to complete it. We can address and resolve the issue, via the nervous system, and bring mind and body into balance. Trust that the body knows what it needs to do. All it requires is that we pay attention.

If this sounds like something you are dealing with, I would love to help facilitate your healing process. lara (et)