Think of pain as being your “harm alarm,” a signal that is designed to get your attention, to motivate you to escape whatever is causing it. After all, pain—potential harm—could mean injury or even death. In this way, pain serves a useful purpose because it is functions to keep you safe and alive. This all works quite well if you simply cut your finger while dicing vegetables for dinner. But what about chronic pain? According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, more than 100 million Americans are living with a chronic pain condition, such as fibromyalgia, migraines, or back pain. Once pain becomes chronic, pain sounds its alarm regularly, perhaps even constantly. How do you escape something that’s coming from inside you?
Pain is in the Brain.
People often think of pain as being purely a sensory experience– meaning a highly unpleasant physical sensation—and they tend to ignore the psychological aspects of pain.
No matter the cause of your pain, or where you feel it in your body, it is all processed in your central nervous system which is controlled by your brain and spinal cord. It’s common to think of pain being located in the part of your body that hurts, such as back pain being located in your back. However even in cases where people have had surgery for back pain—their back pain is actually located centrally, in the nervous system. Your brain and entire nervous system are influenced by your thoughts, your feelings, your beliefs, your memory, and your environment. In fact, to a very large degree, how much pain you feel after surgery is determined by your mood and other psychological factors.
This doesn’t mean your pain isn’t real. It means that pain is fundamentally a psychological phenomenon. For everyone. Narrowly focusing on pain as a sensory problem has contributed to the overprescribing of opioid medication.
We’ve been treating pain the wrong way.
In fact, psychology is built into the definition of pain. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as both “…a noxious sensory and emotional experience.” Treating pain from the physical perspective only ignores half of the definition of pain. If we treat half of anything, can we be surprised when it does not work well?
Pain acts as a stressor on your nervous system and your mind. It causes changes in your respiratory and heart rates, increases muscle tension, constricts blood vessels, and can cause anxiety, over-focus on pain, and feelings of helplessness.
You can learn specific skills to calm your nervous system, thereby dampening pain processing in your brain and spinal cord. Used regularly, these skills can work as effectively as medication to ease pain and related distress.
4 Tips for Calming Your Nervous System for Pain Control
1. Take stock of your triggers and treat your stress. Stress amplifies pain, so it’s important to reduce it. You may not be able to control the circumstance that triggers your stress, but you can control your reaction to it. Learn to become less reactive and you will find you have much greater control.
2. Tune in to your breath. Work to change your breathing pattern so that it becomes deep “belly” breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing). Use diaphragmatic breathing several times daily. Stick with it and release your expectation that it will change your pain right away. Remind yourself that the goal is retrain your nervous system first; pain reduction comes later.
3. Learn to meditate. Meditation gives you brain control and helps you focus less on pain—thereby directly reducing pain and suffering. Used regularly, meditation is powerful pain medicine.
4. Harness the power of your thoughts and emotions! Your everyday thoughts and feelings have a profound effect on your pain. This means the more you focus on your pain the worse it will get.
With pain psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy, you can learn how to view things differently in order to chart a positive course towards less pain. Consider working with a pain psychologist, health psychologist, or therapist skilled in cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain.
Beth Darnall, Ph.D. is the author of Less Pain Fewer Pills; Avoid the Dangers of Prescription Opioids and Gain Control Over Chronic Pain. (Bull Publishing, 2014) AsClinical Associate Professor in the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford University, she treats individuals and groups at the Stanford Pain Management Center. She is a prominent pain researcher, educator, writer and speaker in the field of pain management. She is an NIH-funded principal investigator for pain psychology research that is examining the mechanisms of pain catastrophizing treatment, including a novel single-session pain catastrophizing class she developed. Find out more about Beth Darnall at www.bethdarnall.com.