I live with chronic, persistent pain from a neurological movement disorder called Dystonia; something I have had for nearly 20 years.
Prior to developing it, I experienced pain throughout my life; most of which came from many from sports injuries. The pain that came with Dystonia was a completely different beast entirely. Honestly, I didn’t realize such awful pain existed.
Every one has, of course, experienced pain in their life, to one degree or another. However, the way we process pain and how that pain impacts our lives, is different from person to person. I believe that the way we respond to pain, whether it be physical or emotional, can have a significant effect on how well we cope and determines the level to which we experience it. The reason I say this, is because pain is an emotional experience in the brain. In other words, if you hurt your back, you feel the pain in the brain. Not in the back itself.
With physical and emotional pain, the same areas of the brain are activated.
Pain is not a sense, like touch, sight, or hearing. However, neural, blood, and immune pathways between brain and body are tagged with the physical location; this is why we “feel” or link pain to a body part.
Because pain is primarily an emotional experience, we often have an emotional reaction to it when it occurs; such as anger, fear, sadness, helplessness, depression and anxiousness. None of these emotions are pleasant and the human brain is wired to either fight against or run from these adverse feelings or situations; also known as, the fight or flight response.
This is a healthy response to have in the short term when we are in danger, but if we live in this state all the time, it creates chronic stress which is very unhealthy. It makes it difficult for the body to perform optimally and for it to heal. Chronic fight or flight activation can also make it difficult to concentrate. To read more about stress, stress management, and pain, please check out Chapters 8 and 9 of my book, “Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey.“
The fight or flight response is an important built-in mechanism we have been conditioned to live with when we are not supposed to. We have been taught to run from or resist things that don’t feel good, instead of FEELING things that are unpleasant. If we can learn to resist less and allow ourselves to feel more of what we experience, rather than run from what doesn’t feel good, it can have a very beneficial impact on our health. When we learn to “sit with” problems, it helps them recede or resolve.
If we instead allow the fight or flight response to kick in, this stress, over time, may manifest into or prolong physical illness.
To resolve feelings such as grief, anger, and resentment, embrace joy and happiness. This is why it is so helpful to “sit with” pain and develop a new relationship with it, because our emotional reaction to it can most definitely make it better or worse.
With this in mind, the conscious emotional response we have on top of what is automatic, the more tolerable the pain will be in the moment and in the long-term. In other words, the less we react to pain in an emotional way (anger, hatred, sadness, etc.), the less destructive the pain will be. Too many of us who are in pain experience an emotional and physical cycle like the following; we have pain, fear, adrenaline production, anger, then pain again, fear, adrenaline, pain, etc.
This cycle keeps pain alive and constant until we interrupt or break the cycle and learn to sit with the pain differently than we have been.
We need to change our emotional responses to create new outcomes. The only way to build the neural pathways in the brain that are necessary to change our perception of pain, is to change our habits, judgments and memories of painful life experiences.