Fibromyalgia – is it all to do with the left & right sides of the brain?
There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed, to do with fibromyalgia…one I really started sitting up and taking note of when I read Jill Bolte Taylor’s autobiographical book, “My Stroke of Insight“, a couple of years ago (and reading that book turned out to be mine). We’re all familiar with the concept of people being left or right brain dominant, so-called logical or creative ‘”types” or a mixture of the two, and this phenomenon that I’ve noticed is to do with how the left and right sides of the brain “talk” to each other (or don’t) in someone with fibromyalgia. What this book flagged up to me was a huge area of coincidence between the challenges of stroke recovery and of fibromyalgia “flare”.
Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard educated neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke in 1996 and, due to her insider familiarity with the workings of the human brain, was able to witness and take note of what was happening to her, both during her stroke and throughout the recovery process, in a wholly unique and scientific way. This led to her book and an extremely worthwhile TedTalk video (a link worth following as it is thought-provoking on so many levels). The post-stroke challenges that Jill describes have enough in common with my worst experiences of fibromyalgia that it got me thinking about these two halves of the brain and the ways that they work together to process experience and to enable the body to function in so many ways that we typically fail to notice or simply take for granted. In particular, it made me consider what it would look like if they stopped communicating as fluidly as they are meant to – even if only for intermittent periods of time – and also why, in the first place, would they suddenly have such a breakdown in communication. What came up in response to these questions felt like a blueprint for the fibromyalgic “flare-up”.
What kept presenting, as the why? part of this equation, was the single word “overwhelm”, whether this be the systemic, body-function kind of overwhelm that takes your physical health down or of the emotional variety. When my health crashed with fibromyalgia a decade ago, I had both of these going on and I suspect that is very typical of its onset so that any one of a dozen factors can become the straw the breaks the camel’s back. This makes for an extremely confusing scenario for doctors, researchers and YOU as the “cause” is just as likely to be a divorce as a whiplash; a viral infection as a bereavement; a chemical overload, including a reaction to vaccination or dental amalgams, as food intolerance or unaddressed chronic pain; or, likely, a combination of several factors as above. I both willing and gratefully concede that what happened to me was nothing so dramatic or life-threatening as a stroke yet fibromyalgia is its own kind of stroke; a slow-burn, body-wide, cascading, frustratingly hard to pigeon-hole one and there were far too many similarities with JBT’s experience to ignore. I ended up writing about it – and JBT’s book – in one of my very long blog-posts (called Windows of Insight) but this one, I promise you, will be much more succinct as there’s a very particular point that I’m excited to make; one which feels like another breakthrough. At its core is the instinct that this kind of health crash can be reversed by engaging (just as JBT did) in the right kinds of activities, ones which stimulate and entice both sides of the brain to work together once again.
One thing I will reiterate from that earlier blog is that a key observation of those prone to fibromyalgia, if I am any kind of sample, is this – we weren’t born with a breakdown or faulty communication wiring between left and right brain hemispheres; in fact, far from it. In my case, through school and beyond, I was one of those classic all-rounders who are as colourfully artistic, sensitive and florid as I they are logical, analytical and controlled. When it came to choosing subjects to run with, I could have chosen any out of the mix, from art to chemistry. When it came to a job, I was as capable of adding creative flourish or uncanny intuition to a situation as I was of creating systems or strategies that would bring projects into reality and run them to tight schedules or budgets. I had my fingers firmly in both pies, the ‘perfect’ mix of attributes for a varied career. The bit where this suddenly became struggle was in my personal life at the point when my super-analytical brain registered that it had now gathered a tipping-point of data about a world seemingly top-heavy with crisis and pain; so much overwhelm coming at me from left and right that my super-sensitive side was unable to handle it, nor could my logical aspect reconcile any of these experiences in a way that brought cohesion and meaning. At the point when my health took its nose dive I had officially become the empath who had over-thought the world, the one who “knew too much” and now found themselves at sea, and at odds, with a world turned almost too painful to make any sense of.
Reasons for health crash
That, I believe, was the point when my left and right brain started experimenting with a parting of the ways; and, when the big red overwhelm button was pressed, the ensuing disengagement of these two aspects of myself happened as some sort of experiment in self-protection, a release spring that did its darndest to whip me away from the scene of my imminent demise. In other words, fibromyalgia was my body’s best attempt to save me for another day – to pull me aside and distract me until I could (re)find the kind of lasting harmony, the reunification of everything, that came from within. Countless anecdotes from, and contacts with, others with fibromyalgia have shown me that this reaction is completely typical of its onset; the circumstantial variables might alter but the ultimate breakdown, so often, presents as a fundamental survival mechanism gone haywire.
Times when I have a flare are characterised by these things: indescribable pain (Jill Bolte Taylor describes incredible pain being her experience when her logical-labeling-rationalising left brain could no longer make sense of her ordinary sensory experiences); communication challenges, from word-slurring to the inability to find even the most basic words; difficulties with decision-making, logic and strategy; long and short-term memory loss; blurred vision and intense light/noise sensitivity; muddled priorities, confusion and (that marvellously all-consuming phenomenon) brain fog; sudden loss of dexterity, clumsiness and lack of coordination; temporary loss of such social skills as tact, patience, small-talk and empathy; social phobia and dislike of crowds or large spaces; all-pervading exhaustion and a sort of fundamental loss of engagement with ordinary everyday things. Into the mix come symptoms that share a great deal in common with MS including electric pains, tremors and muscle weakness, peripheral neuropathy and numbness, impaired vision and spontaneously pulsating/contracting muscles.
Dancing your way back to health
So now to the point. Just over a month ago I took up a kind of dance, called Nia, that is an expressive, yoga-based, extraordinarily healing form of movement carried out – barefoot – in a teacher-led group and in an environment that is non-competitive and focussed upon mindfulness and wellbeing. Like all the best things on the journey of life, Nia arrived in mine at “just the right moment”, six months after daily yoga reintroduced some gentle movement and flexibility into my world; it also met, and matched, something I had been eagerly looking for since the end of last year.
This was like the end of a quest because, even before I found Nia, it felt like it ought to exist yet nothing seemed to tick all the right boxes; neither zumba nor salsa nor bellydancing met all that I was looking for – I craved something much closer to yoga, to total freedom of expression, to healing, to the kind of music I gravitate towards – yet I knew it must be out there, somewhere. Inside of me and bubbling was this incredible urge to dance again just as, all those many years ago, in my twenties, I used to lose myself on the dance floor in what (I now see) was my coping mechanism, the thing that kept me sane during years of intense career and lifestyle pressures. Back then, I never danced for or with other people; I danced exclusively for me and those times lost in unthinking rhythm gave “me” back to myself in a way I can hardly explain.
Suddenly (and its a mark of where I’ve got to in my recovery process and the reclaiming of joy in my life) I was looking to recapture that feeling again and was finding the urge to move to the music – not just listen to it – was almost overwhelming me at times. I remember sending a message to a close friend, around Christmas time, abstractly announcing “You know what, I want to dance!” and surprised myself by how much I suddenly knew that I meant it. Then Nia popped up in my newsfeed, with a new class starting locally, and with just the right timing at the best part of my physical year. I spoke to the teacher on the phone and we immediately clicked, in fact sent sparks flying at the immediate connection we made, at which point my excitement only increased. This, and my unwavering commitment to “show up” at that first session, though it was way outside my comfort zone to join in a group activity doing anything so physical, told me all I needed to know. Coming up to my sixth week into these wonderful classes, I’m somewhere close to being able to describe what Nia has added to the mix of my life; so here’s the summary:
Ways that dancing leads to healing and optimised wellbeing
- When I dance – or, get “in that zone”, centred in my own energy space – I go somewhere that is beyond caring, beyond worrying, beyond analysing. Once you’ve done Nia for three weeks (is the time frame suggested by my wonderful teacher Marie, and she’s right) you are beyond caring if you are getting the moves right or feeling self-conscious; you are just “there” in this space of you-ness for that hour…which then spirals out into the rest of your day, your week, you life, in ways so subtle you hardly notice it happening but it does. Gradually, that trust that you are doing “it” right, whatever that happens to be, spins out to become a lack of self-consciousness in all things, not least the way you handle the body that has long been the thing you are most painfully conscious of. The exhilaration, spontaneity and devil-may-care aspects of life sneak back in to your experience – its like a whole lesson in being alive combined with the kind of therapy that comes from a long, hard belly-laugh; unbridled, long overdue and sooo healing!
- My left and right brain hemispheres are the only dance partners in the room – its them who have to work out how not to tread on each others toes and they – increasingly – do so with such good humour and not a jot of self-criticism. There is so much to Nia that involves switching from left to right and back again that these two halves get the work-out of their week – and, to start with, this was such a struggle that there was no other remedy but to get over myself and laugh along as a supposed ‘cha-cha-cha’ switch-over from right to left foot sent me flying like a tipsy octopus over the floor…
Slowly, steadily, doing these hand-overs repeatedly, is now working its magic and, here’s the thing; one of the biggest effects I’m noticing is how my whole-brain functioning is getting so much better, sharper, much more ‘the norm’ for the rest of my week between Nia sessions. Mentally and in terms of body coordination, I’m feeling refreshed somehow, like so much brain-plaque has been dissolved, am feeling ‘top-notch’ in a way that has eluded me for a long time, like after a whole-system tune-up. While flare-ups haven’t stopped, they haven’t dominated these few weeks and I seem to sail through them with more ease and much more quickly – and that’s especially if they coincide with my class!
Even during my very first session of Nia, there was a half-way point when I recognised the feeling of whole-system overwhelm coming on, like a fibromyalgia flare in miniature, and could observe all the other “symptoms” flipping on their switches including the total blurring of my vision, the unquenchable thirst, the electric pulse and crashing exhaustion – in fact, it was so fascinating to watch it happening in a “controlled” situation. It was as though all my brain neurones panicked at the sheer amount of left-right communication they were being coerced into and started to bail out on me; I felt blown-out and it wasn’t through lack of stamina. After all, I’m used to exertion and sustained exercise, I walk miles up and down hill every day but the thing that was so new here was the extent of whole-brain involvement that was being called upon and stimulated. In fact, my body felt so temporarily defeated by what was being asked of it that it was as though it was prepared to blow the whole circuit board to smithereens like a retreating army blowing up all the bridges…only, I took a drink, some deep breaths, brought my level of movement down a notch and I just kept on going through the session…and it was all alright, I more than survived. A week later, I sailed past that half-way point without any difficulty at all and now it’s not even a concern because (though I have felt fine in every subsequent session) I know I can deal with anything that arises; a realisation that has stretched the whole paradigm of what I believe I am capable of. Just knowing that my weekly Nia is building a whole new networks of neural pathways between different parts of my brain that are, now, wanting to work together again is deeply satisfying to me and my right to left hand-overs are getting so much smoother too, ha ha ha (or, should it be, cha-cha-cha).
- My hour of Nia is all for me; it says I’m worth it and that I’m important enough to carve this time out for myself, come what may! It also doesn’t matter what state I’m in, how I look, how well I’m moving, whether I can manage to string two coherent words together before or after the session – literally, whatever state I’m in, I get to show up “just as I am”; a key lesson in life that I’ve long been mindful of but its so wonderful to get regular weekly practice of this in action. Oh, and by the way, I’m not the only one in the group that has fibromyalgia; in fact we are a real mixed bag and there is a sense that we are all happily, openly, bringing ourselves into that space “just as we are” and going away feeling we have expanded that outwards to meet a whole new level of potential. At the very heart of it, Nia is self-love in action.
- Nia’s fluid, expressive movements are profoundly energy healing at a level that is way beyond the surface. Dancing like this – in fact all dance, all movement, life itself – shifts energy around but (if you are fully aware of the energy body that you are, in the most fundamental way) you will quickly sense that the whole way Nia is designed is intended to play with energy in ways that are massively conducive to greater wellbeing and deepest healing. Better still, you don’t have to understand or attempt think about all that, if you don’t want to; you can just get on the dance floor and enjoy a physical workout and a load of fun.
- The movements are deeply healing and they can be taken as large or as core-focused as I want depending on how I am feeling or what is most called for in that moment. With three levels to choose from, I can customise every minute of that hour of Nia to my most precise needs. Also – as I find with yoga, which I also love – it is those much smaller movements, kept closest to the body’s core, that are often the most profound, the most nurturing, healing and transformative; plus I know I am always in control, am always listening closely to my body and can adapt to each moment. Just the very act of showing up for this session and listening to my body’s needs so closely, tweaking every move according to my intuition, amounts to a healing act; one which tells every cell in my body that I am attentive to it and listening out for its messages. In this space, the body learns to trust, to relax, to release and to heal so swiftly its incredible.
- Since starting Nia, I’m no longer being quite so precious about my perceived limitations and I think you know what I’m talking about. There can be a tendency, with chronic illness, to get deeply into protecting yourself, to pulling back before going forwards, to stop trying new things in anticipation of failure or making things worse – and these things are the death knell of your recovery process as they cause you to stagnate right where you are. When it came to Nia, my enthusiasm to do this thing and my anticipation that it was “just what I was looking for” was such that wild horses couldn’t have kept me away from that first session. In fact, on that very first day, and a couple of times since, I was so significantly ‘flared’ that I would normally have cancelled everything – yet I went anyway and came home feeling so much better. There were no energy crashes afterwards, no set-backs, no regrets; it was all good and this is why I have committed fully to this activity in a way that takes me aback a little, given so many years of reticence when it came to joining in, committing or saying “yes” to things.
What I’ve noticed, since, is that my confidence to make plans, to take risks, to go ahead with doing things, even when I start my day feeling quite awful, has increased tenfold so that my whole life has opened up in countless ways since taking that first class. In that month, I’ve pushed some significant boundaries, done some surprising things and opened up some huge potential in my newly-expanded life, even ploughed ahead with a trip into London in the midst of the kind of flare-up that would normally make crowds and travel connections far too overwhelming to deal with, even a little terrifying yet I had a wonderful time. I have never felt better equipped to manage a variety of situations, regardless of how my health is presenting, knowing it doesn’t have to mean “no” to what I really want to do. Oh, and I now have an almost fierce determination that I will get to my Nia class, whatever else my week presents me with.
- Nia is all about the music – the great healer, the relaxer, the great furnace-stoker of the endorphin factory. Many things, along the road, have been helpful but those that have made the most difference to me have always been accompanied by great music, whether therapy sessions, yoga or painting as I know I respond to it at a very deep level; it literally opens me up. Nia meets that “knowing” in me and plugs straight into the soul with the most fantastic mix of truly uplifting music, putting that music at the very core of the activity; how therapeutic is that!
It is broadly accepted that music can be profoundly healing but you never, quite, realise how much a part of you longed to do more than just listen or sing along, how much you were still feeling restrained, held-in and “small” somehow, until you allow yourself to sway and pulse to the rhythm and fully-use arms, legs and big gesture to fill a considerably larger space – so, when was the last time you did that? Allowing is such a huge part of self-expression and then, from that place, allowing yourself to express all that you are is a core facet of any healing journey; its one of the reasons I love to paint and write, both of which have played a huge part in that journey. Dance allows that expression to be as large, as deep, as demonstrative, as fluid, as gentle, as focussed, as tender, as out-of-the-box, as wild as it wants to be – no words required – so its no surprise, really, that dance plus music is a powerful combination. Everybody should have the regular opportunity to dance; really, it could transform the world!
- Flexibility and stamina have increased significantly for me and, since starting Nia, I’ve really noticed the joy I have in using my body – gratuitously, expressively – in everything I do, from spine-rolling my way down to the saucepan cupboard to tripping lightly, rhythmically up the stairs. Even after one session, I surprised myself with a double-length walk that afternoon and the energy crash I half expected never happened that day or even that week. In fact, I actually noticed how I felt more energised and that continued, becoming more “the norm” than the exception. My metabolism feels like it has turned up a notch, if my appetite is anything to go by, along with that gentle heat in the cheeks that comes with getting everything moving at the deepest cellular level. The real trophy that I can share with anyone putting up with the rigid corset of myofascial pain, is that the locked-up fascia is steadily realising its hold in ways that were taking far longer to “get into” beforehand, even doing daily yoga. I look forward to watching how this serves me in the myofascially challenging winter months, having done so much groundwork during the “best” part of my year.
Dance and art – two prime ways to piece your health back together?
This has just been a quick round-up of the positives of Nia and I’m fully expecting to write more on the topic as these continue to unfold. One of the things I have also noticed is how similar the effects (and the challenges) have been to when I first started to draw and paint. Like dancing, painting was a stretch of my abilities to start with but quickly took me into a very singular “zone” where pain and limitation seemed to dissolve away when I was absorbed in doing it. I later came to understand how it was the unique “knitting together” of left and right hemispheres in one single, cohesive act that enabled this to happen (art has played a HUGE part in my recovery journey) and I now know that dance acts in much the same way. This is so important to know as it flags these and any other whole-brain activities up as a potential key to recovery as well as to keeping the brain active, optimal and “young”. Looking back, one of the greatest therapies I gave myself, in the early stages of my recovery, though I hardly realised it at the time, was that I diligently attended a life study group every week for three whole years. At these whole-morning sessions, I was routinely expected to use both left and right hands to draw and kept “on my toes” drawing live, sometimes moving (often dancing) subjects, sometimes using charcoal attached to a very long stick, working with eyes closed, with continuous line, or even drawing the empty void around the model – it was always kept challengingly fun. Week after week, we practiced using big, expressive, rapid mark-making combined with keen observation skills that engaged both the analytical side of the brain and the more colourful, expressive, imaginative side in a “dance” of activity. I laugh now at the similarity, the association, between these two activities – both keeping me from stagnation and gaining me a foothold on recovery thus paving the way towards a more cohesive, holistic me. There is so much potential for further exploration, here; so much scope for further dot-joining for others interested in this field as I continue to join-up my own. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the dance!
* Photographs provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com)
- Nia – primary information website including international “Find a Teacher”
- Barefoot Fitness – Nia in Hampshire UK provided by Marie Alesbury, my own wonderful teacher!
- Jo Turner – Nia in Farnham, Surrey UK
- My Stroke of Insight – Jill Bolte Taylor, website and book
- TedTalk – Jill Bolte Taylor
- Windows of Insight – my earlier post about the left-right brain connection
- Nia Technique in action on YouTube – loads of viewing to give you a taster
- Fibromyalgia Alternative Treatments: Dance Therapy
- Effectiveness of dance in patients with fibromyalgia: a randomized, single-blind, controlled study
- Dancing Through the Pain
- Fibromyalgia and Dancing
- Dance Therapy for MS
- A Marathon A Day – one of several accounts “out there” about how regular movement significantly helps those with MS
- Neuroplasticity: How the Brain Creates New Neural Pathways
IMPORTANT UPDATE (September 2017):
I feel it is only fair to add that after three months or so of Nia I decided it wasn’t for me. The cardio-vascular nature of the modality at first seemed to “help” and then to “hinder” my health as I started to experienced prolongued crashes and pain in the days afterwards. About the same time, I read some articles about how cardiovascular exercise can exacerbate certain kinds of fibromylgia and chronic fatigue due to the nature of the breakdown in the mitochondrial process (energy release into the cells) which progressively leaves musles more depleted of oxygen in a way that is not easily replenished as in the case of an “ordinary” person. Oxygen starved muscles become more prone to tearing and burning out creating a vicious cycle of pain and exhaustion (this is the summary explanation; there is plenty of other information available on the internet).
Further down the line, seeing this through the eyes of Ayureveda (via which I have come to understand myself as significantly “vata dominant” – vata being all about air and space; combined with a secondary dosha “pitta” = fire!), I understand how vigorous dance (vata combined with a fair amount of pitta) exacerbated my particular dosha imbalance and “made me feel worse” in the longer term. Slow and gentle grounding activities are much more important and useful in my case…in order to pacify my airy-spaciousness with kapha‘s earth and water qualities; which is why walking in nature and yoga are far more suitable in my situation; even seated or yoga-combined dance type movements using expressive arms and gentle rythmic movements can be hugely therapeutic in a way that is less taxing on the body. I primarily intend to continue exploring and expressing my vata qualities through art and music (neither of which agravate my physical shortcomings). Understanding my doshas has been such a key stage in my recovery and I recommened that you explore my various articles on Ayureveda from the menu above for much more on this topic.