Your Pain is Real and it is a Reflection of the MindSep 14, 2023
Your pain is real — if you’re feeling it, you’re not making it up — and it is a reflection of your mind.
This sounds like a paradox, and it can be hard to take in, but stick with me, and let’s see if we can deepen our understanding of what this could mean for you.
No Such Thing As A Pain Sensor
If you’re like me, you’re probably used to thinking that pain always comes from an acute source in the body, like a broken bone or damaged tissue. This kind of pain seems easy to understand because we correlate the “damage” we witness with the sensation we experience. We can look at a cut, bruise, or fracture and think, “Right, this makes sense. Obviously, it hurts.”
However, even this kind of pain is more complicated than you might think because our bodies don’t have pain sensors. Instead, we have somewhat agnostic sensors that detect changes in an impact area and then send information to our brain, telling it to check out what’s happening. The brain does a whole bunch of interesting stuff and then decides to interpret whatever is going on as “painful.” In the end, the level of pain we experience results from the brain’s interpretation of the signal it receives from the site of the damage rather than a direct message from the body.
What we have going on in our lives at the moment of an acute injury can influence how our brains interpret certain sensations — mood, setting, motivation, etc. That’s why sometimes minor things like paper cuts hurt more or less on any given day. For example, a paper cut might hurt more if a paper cut might hurt more if you’re by yourself and in a rush than if you’re with a group of people at a relaxing get together.
Chronic Pain As a Reflection of the Mind
Chronic pain is a little bit different, but the same principles apply. Our brains recognize sensations in our bodies and interpret them in certain ways — dangerous, frustrating, concerning — often resulting in the experience of pain. While some chronic conditions are accompanied by tissue inflammation or damage, others continue long after healing tissues or bones. The experience of pain is still real, but it may be coming from a miscommunication between your tissues and your brain rather than from a dangerous re-injury.
Working With Our Thoughts
When we notice bodily sensations, we often find they are accompanied by matching thoughts, feelings, and interpretations. Our brains tend to fixate on what is not okay rather than what is okay, sending us messages of danger, distress, concern, and worry. This makes sense because our danger detection system is constantly scanning, looking for ways to keep us safe, but when it never turns off or is more active than necessary, it can unintentionally raise our level of distress beyond what is helpful.
By working with our thoughts, we can help our brains to let go of some of their unnecessary scanning for danger and interpretation of sensation as dangerous. When we can do this, we may simultaneously notice reduced sensation in some areas and increased sensation in others. This is because the brain is getting a chance to pay attention to typically neglected areas. It might sound like a double-edged sword: great to reduce sensation in some areas and frustrating to notice other areas that feel less than okay. It makes sense to feel this way, but hopefully, you can take comfort in knowing that awareness of new sensations allows you to make choices informed by ideas from your whole system, not just the usual suspects (i.e., the ones that seem to hurt the most).
Creating Healthier Environments for Our Bodies
One way we can support our bodies to change their relationship with sensation is to become aware of the conscious and unconscious thoughts accompanying our pain. Once we become aware of these thoughts, we can learn to take what is helpful and release what is unnecessary — in essence, we can learn to balance our thoughts. By doing this, we are lessening the stress load that our bodies experience and may even be influencing the genes responsible for certain conditions.
For example, if you wake up one morning with stiffness in your Achilles tendon, you might immediately think, “Oh no, I won’t be able to go for a run today.” That thought might be accompanied by sadness or frustration and another thought, “If I don’t go for a run today, then I’m not taking care of my body.” Suddenly, you might think, “If I don’t care for my body, then I can’t get anything done for my family.” Then you might say, “If I don’t get anything done for my family, then I’m a bad mom.” Now, not only is your Achilles tendon tender, but you are stewing in various difficult feelings and beliefs about your self-worth.
If this sounds like you, don’t despair; this can be me sometimes, too. That’s why I spend so much time working on recognizing the conscious and unconscious thoughts that accompany my experience of physical sensation. I find, and the science backs this up, that if I can recognize how I feel about my tender Achilles tendon, I can often make choices that allow me to experience the sensation with a great sense of contentment. And, often (although not always), I find that this change in perspective reduces my experience of pain.
Getting Ourselves into a Parasympathetic State
If we can start to recognize the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs accompanying our physical sensations, we can reduce the amount of time our body is stuck in an unnecessary state of stress (i.e., fight-flight-freeze-fawn). When we send security messages to our many internal systems, we allow them to work more effectively. They don’t feel so worried about immediate survival, so they are released to do more of the life-giving work they want for our bodies.
Three Practices To Try This Month
Here are three practices to help your body’s systems release excess tension and drop into something closer to a parasympathetic state.
Try one or try all three, but don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s often hard to learn new things during a tough day. So, if today is one of those days, do something for half the time suggested, just read the instructions, or even wait until tomorrow to get started.
- Practice Gratitude
- Start your day by noticing something that you are grateful for. Work up to seeing 3-5 things. Write them down for maximum benefit.
- It is challenging to be in a “fear” state if you are practicing gratitude
- Refer to Julie Boyer’s “Wake Up With Gratitude” for more ideas
- Schedule 1 minute per day to decompress and wind down (increase by 1 minute each day if you want a challenge). This can be in a bath while brushing your teeth, boiling water for your coffee, or simply any time you feel like setting aside.
- Let this be a moment to notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You may see that you have a million ideas buzzing around or experiencing what Buddhists call the “monkey mind.” That’s okay; this is your time to notice and be with yourself no matter how you are.
- Consider this time a gift to yourself that is the opposite of selfish. When you fill your cup, it spills over and makes life better for others.
- At least once per day, pause and take three long, deep breaths
- For an extra challenge, do this multiple times throughout the day and increase the length of your sessions
Has this been helpful? Leave a comment to let me know!