You would have every right to be offended if someone said your pain was all in your head. But the truth is, the majority of pain itself is constructed in the brain. This doesn’t mean your pain is any less real. Neither does it mean that your physical body doesn’t play a role in the signaling of pain.
What more and more research is suggesting however is that your brain can either help perpetuate or diminish its effect on your quality of life and wellbeing.
Let’s go a little deeper.
First we must understand that pain itself is a complicated warning system to protect you from harm. For example when you pick up a bowl that’s searing hot in your hand, your peripheral nervous system sends signals to your brain, which then decides how much danger there is. If it decides the signals are worth paying attention to, the pain volume is cranked up until the problem is resolved – if not, pain is cranked down and becomes more tolerable until it is put on mute.
This system works perfectly well for acute pain and helps prevent further serious harm or damage. But in more chronic conditions where there is no “quick fix” like back pain for example, the parts of the brain that send and receive danger signals become more sensitive over time. As we continue to experience pain, the more perceptive it becomes until the brain is always on high alert.
Now depending on a multitude of factors including our environments, emotions, beliefs and expectations around the situation, the brain may likely continue to register back pain day after day.
The good news?
Evidence suggests that it’s very possible to tone down an overly sensitive brain and moderate chronic pain messages. But how Chris?
There is no easy answer to this and in most cases the rehabilitation from chronic pain requires help and guidance from a team of professionals. But there is so much you can do yourself to help manage and even eliminate chronic pain! The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital specialises in helping people learn techniques to alleviate stress, anxiety, and pain. They recommend and utilise the “The Mindful 6” as a practical and effective method to do so. From what I have experienced through 7 years of practice, I would strongly agree!
The Mindful 6
- Deep breathing techniques – Inhale deeply, hold for a few seconds, and exhale. Repeat for 60 seconds multiple times a day. To help you focus, you can use a word or phrase to guide you. For example, you may want to breathe in “peace” and breathe out “tension.” There are also several apps for smartphones and tablets that use sound and images to help you maintain breathing rhythms.
- Eliciting the parasympathetic response. An antidote to the stress response, which pumps up heart rate and puts the body’s systems on high alert, the parasympathetic response turns down your body’s reactions. This differs for everyone, warm baths, listening to your favourite chill out tunes, reading – basically whatever relaxes you most, find the time to do more of it!
- Meditation with guided imagery. Begin deep breathing, paying attention to each breath. Then listen to calming music or imagine being in a restful environment. If you find your mind wandering, say “refresh,” and call the image back into focus.
- Mindfulness. Pick any activity you enjoy—reading poetry, walking in nature, gardening, or cooking—and become fully immersed in it. Notice every detail of what you are doing and how your senses and emotions are responding. Practice bringing mindfulness to all aspects of your life.
- Yoga and tai chi. These mind-body exercises incorporate breath control, meditation, and movements to stretch and strengthen muscles. Videos and apps can help you get started.
- Positive thinking. “When we’re ill, we often tend to become fixated on what we aren’t able to do. Retraining your focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t will give you a more accurate view of yourself and the world at large,” says Dr. Slawsby. She advises keeping a journal in which you list all the things you are thankful for each day. “We may have limitations, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still whole human beings.”
By implementing these techniques in your weekly routine, you can help break the perpetuating patterns of chronic pain for life!