Did you know the longer you are in pain, the better your brain gets at pain?
While it is easy to believe that chronic pain will never lessen or change, there is evidence to suggest that this isn’t true. Neuroscience tells us that your brain’s pain centers are not “hardwired,” that is, the connections between brain cells are neither fixed nor permanent, and your brain isn’t doomed to remain the same simply because of genetic makeup or medical conditions. Rather, experiences, environment and other inputs constantly shape the structure and function of your pain system.
The term we use to describe the brain’s remarkable ability to grow, and change is neuroplasticity. “Plastic” meaning that the brain (neuro) is flexible and malleable, the opposite of fixed and permanent. Similarly, your body’s biological systems are also “plastic” and can adapt and change over time, like the way your muscles grow with use and shrink with disuse.
Your brain is amazing at learning. If you want to become good at something like playing chess, cooking, or an art form, just practice it over and over and your brain will get better at it. Just like your bicep muscles get bigger and stronger with use, frequently used brain pathways also get bigger and stronger with use. This neoplastic change occurs because as we have said, “neurons that fire together wire together.”
Just as the brain can become good at cooking or an art form, it can also become even better at pain. When you have pain for weeks, months, and years, your brain inadvertently “practices” pain. The longer you practice pain, the more you use the “pain pathway” in your brain. The more you use this pathway, the bigger and stronger it gets. The stronger this pathway the better your brain gets at pain. When this happens, we say your brain and the rest of your nervous system have become sensitive. When your brain is sensitive, it has a lower threshold for sensory stimuli. For instance, if you have a sensitive sense of smell, you detect faint scents that other people hardly notice, so they seem magnified, and you pick up on them more.
Did you know injury can occur in the absence of pain, and pain can occur in the absence of injury?
Athletes regularly report discovering blood and bruises only after the game is over, even though the injury occurred hours before. Indeed, cognitive, emotional and contextual factors like excitement, distraction, pleasure, perception of safety, and lack of conscious awareness can keep pain at bay. This exemplifies an important and counterintuitive point. Injury can occur in the absence of pain, and pain can occur in the absence of injury.
Did you know that we Feel what we Think?
The body must receive and interpret input from the environment through its various nervous system receptors before it physiologically responds in a way to ensure survival. Each signal is processed as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. All these signals are constantly competing, creating an ever-changing chemical cocktail. It is interesting to know that receptors have no inherent capacity to experience sensation, that is they cannot ‘feel.” Rather, receptors send signals through the peripheral nervous system to your brain which interprets them. Thoughts elicit the same chemical responses as any other sensations. The responses can be pleasant, neutral or unpleasant, very similar to other kinds of sensory input. Using functional MRI, science has revealed that physical and emotional pain activate similar regions of the brain.
The major difference between thoughts and other sensory input from the body is that you cannot escape from your thoughts. All the other sensory input, such as taste, smell and touch, can be avoided or controlled. When it comes to controlling non constructive repetitive thoughts, you will find that the more you attempt to avoid or control them, the stronger they become. The result is that your body becomes full of stress hormones and is under a sustained adrenaline/cortisol assault. The collective effects of these inputs can become overwhelming, and your body and mind will eventually break down. Since you cannot escape unconstructive repetitive thoughts and we are not taught how to process them in our current culture, they become a logical driving force in the creation of chronic pain, persistent symptoms and suffering in our lives. It is well documented that risk factors for developing chronic pain, persistent symptoms in any part of your body and suffering include anxiety, catastrophizing, insomnia, and depression.
However, if you know that your true nature, complete mental, physical and emotional health and wellness is like the blue sky. Clouds are the repetitive thoughts in our mind. They are fluid, and just moving through. The feelings we experience are just the weather that the clouds bring with them. Rain (sadness), thunderstorms (anger, frustration), snow (fear, worry, concern) or the reprieve that the clouds bring on a blasting hot sunny day (relief, joy). Thoughts, feelings, clouds and weather are all fluid, moving through, temporary. Your true nature of peace of mind, calm, and a deeper knowing are the blue sky. It is always there regardless of the clouds, weather or storms.
What if you could learn to adjust your pain dial?
Your pain is controlled by stress and anxiety, mood, and attention. For example, when you’re feeling stressed and anxious, your body is tense and tight, you are having worrying thoughts and by default you perceive or believe that your body is in danger. The pain dial is also controlled by negative emotions like sadness, anger, hopelessness, fear and frustration. This means that when you’re relaxed, distracted and believe your body is safe, pain is quieter, the pain is still there, it hasn’t magically disappeared, but it feels less bad.
I hope you have learned some new information about how pain works in your Mind/Body. The biggest takeaway from this article is this. The level of your pain is determined by your brain’s interpretation of the pain signals, as well as your body’s chemical state. Keep in mind that mental pain and physical pain are processed in similar parts of the brain, so it is possible that a constant stream of negative thoughts are contributing to or may even be the source of your chronic pain. Understanding how you became enmeshed in this mess is one of the first steps toward your freedom. Remember you feel what you think.
You’ve got this.