A few weeks ago, my husband returned from spending a few days at Barnsley Gardens Resort, where he helped with a fundraising event for the Atlanta Area Boy Scouts of America. Upon his happy return (for all parties involved– single moms: you are rockstars!), he gifted me with a bottle of my favorite relaxing lotion, scented with lavender and peppermint. It is heavenly, and we both adore it! It has become a tradition that he brings me a bottle every time he helps with the event in November. Why do we both love it so much? Well, 3 years ago, we spent 2 wonderful nights at Barnsley Gardens for a mini babymoon. It was our last getaway as a family of two. I was super pregnant, but we ate delicious food, relaxed in the pool, went on evening walks, and slept in. We had an incredible couples massage also, and this lotion was the smell of the spa. We bought a bottle then, and even now, 3 years later, using the lotion evokes feeling of peacefulness, joy, love, and overall relaxation.
So, what happened there? How do brain-smell associations work? (And I know some of you are sitting there thinking…what does this have to do with the pelvis?)
We’ve all been there, right? When I hear the song “Kiss me” by Sixpence None the Richer, I’m transported back to the middle of the summer working as a lifeguard. I smell sunscreen and chlorine and feel the warmth of the sunshine. When I smell a certain blend of middle eastern herbal tea, I’m transported back to Cairo, Egypt where I studied abroad in college, walking through the busy streets at the downtown market. Our brains are incredible like that. Certain memories impact us, and cause our brains to form neurotags– specific patterns of neural activation based on that single input. This is why all of the pieces of the memory come flooding back to you when you have the evoked stimulus (in my case recently, amazing lavender mint lotion).
Now let’s jump into pelvic health, and particularly, chronic pain. What if the brain forms neurotags about pain? For example, what if a person began having pain with sitting, and let’s say, for this example, they experienced a few situations where they needed to sit for a long period of time, and the pain was just awful. As we have discussed many many times, we know that all pain is produced by the brain, that the brain can play tricks on us, and that the brain does change over time due to pain and many other factors. The brain could then, build a neurotag about sitting. Basically, when the person in the above example goes to sit, the brain will activate the neural pathways to remember pain, negativity, perhaps anxiety/stress about the situation, etc. and instead of amplifying the feelings of peace and love (like my lotion!), the brain will amplify the feelings of distress and pain. What about a painful medical examination? A negative sexual experience?
Fascinating, right? So, what can we do about it?
First, recognize a negative neurotag for what it is– your brain recognizing familiarity. And what it is not– a true interpretation of the current situation.
Next, change up the pattern to trick your brain. If you have pain when bending forward to pick something up, can you try the bending motion while lying down (ie pulling your knees up to your chest)? If you had a negative medical exam and start feeling anxious about your appointment, could you see a different provider at a different office? Perhaps request a different position for the exam? If you have pain with sex, could you alter the experience? Maybe this means a different position, different location, different warm-up?
After that, aim to build new, positive neurotags for your brain. How do we build positive neurotags? It can start by building a positive association for your brain. So, this could mean diffusing a calming oil blend while listening to a guided relaxation track. Once this association builds for the brain, you could then try using the same scent within a typically negative situation (assuming you have also removed the negative stimulus!). For people with pelvic floor pain, we often use gentle manual treatment (either with a finger or vaginal trainers) to provide a safe input to the tissues in a way that the brain will not guard and protect by pain. Now, envision pairing that calming scent with gentle pelvic floor muscle desensitization? The options are endless for creativity in building positive neurotags! Movement can also be great to build positive neurotags! If you find that pain limits what you can do, working with a physical therapist to develop movements you can do, that keep you at minimal to no discomfort can help your brain build neurotags for safety with movement again!
If this is fascinating to you (as you know it is to me!), here are a few other resources to check out:
These amazing Vlogs by Jilly Bond, one of my favorite physios across the pond (You may recognize a certain someone in the second video!):