I recently finished reading the book, Dissolving Pain, by Les Phemi PhD, and Jim Robbin.
I don’t have chronic physical pain, but I loved this book and how it helped a variety of areas of my life. So I’m sharing my book report with you recapping the key concepts of the book and my takeaways on it!
After reading Dissolving Pain, I feel as though I have now come to a whole new level of understanding of how my brain, mind, and subconscious all work. Especially since I’ve been getting my mind blown with the field of pain science these days, this book brought a few more interesting ideas to the table of ‘what is going on when we feel pain’.
The techniques and concepts introduced in Dissolving Pain are to be used for both physical and emotional pain, and transfer over to practices like meditation, mindfulness, and focus. The book goes through the science of pain, case studies from the author’s practice, and provide detailed exercises, called Open Focus drills, which you can do to dissolve your own pain.
What Dissolving Pain is not about: ignoring feelings of pain, disregarding actual physical causes of pain (like breaking a bone or cutting the skin), making you think it’s all in your head.
Pay attention to how you pay attention
The first thing I learned in this book was that we have multiple kinds of attention, or focus.
The first example of attention they give is great so I’ll share it here – picture a house cat. Most of the day the house cat looks chill and seems to hardly notice a thing. Then, if a mouse came into the picture, the cat would instantly go into a laser beam focus on the mouse, eyes dilating, perhaps even squinting in order to better focus on the animal, its muscles would tense and it’s breathing would become more shallow.
When the cat saw the mouse, the way he focused on it is called narrow focus. When the mouse was gone, the cat displayed diffuse attention. There are two other kinds of focus, but it’s important first to understand these two types of focus.
Modern humans spend the majority of their time in narrow focus – not just with sight, but with all of the senses.
One huge problem with staying in narrow focus attention is that it makes whatever you’re focusing on, pain for example, much larger than it actually is. If pain is consuming almost the entirety of your total focus, it’s going to seem quite large. If you were able to back up your focus so you had a much broader scope of focus, the pain would be much smaller percentage of your total scope of focus.
When we focus on one or a few important things as foreground, we then relegate all else to the background. It’s important to take a look at just how often you do that because whatever style of attention you select is reflected in your brain waves, which is reflected in your body.
The authors note, “when you change your focus, you change the brain’s electrical properties, which has system-wide effects.”
This was one thing I’d never really given much thought prior to reading this book. Of course there are physiological implications for the ways you choose to focus. And it’s quite understood that the “fight or flight/always stressed” out response isn’t a good one. But until reading the book, I hadn’t drilled down to the effects of what constantly keeping yourself in a ‘tense, ready to pounce’ type focus does to you.
What happens to your physiology when you focus
Physiological changes that happen during narrow focus attention:
- tense muscles
- increase frequency of brain waves [lower brain waves are used for sleeping, meditation and restoration – higher brain waves are for processing and staying alert, also correlated with anxiety]
- increases instability in brain waves
- makes you more sensitive to pain
- ideally used when the need to hone in on one thing, like a dangerous situation, is necessary; but not ideal for using day in and day out of normal life
Physiological changes that happen during diffuse focus attention:
- sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) starts to quiet
- parasympathetic functions start to engage (like rest, and digestion)
- blood flow returns to muscles
- muscles become less tense
The point here is – narrow focus is a stress response. But narrow focus itself isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s quite helpful when you need to focus on a task or emergency situation. But that’s exactly why you overuse it. And thus by overusing narrow focus, you teach your brain to defer to that style of focus at all times, for all things.
The problem with narrow focus is that, as the authors put it, “to have narrow focus, you will sacrifice speed of processing for neurophysiological stability.”
This was a fairly sizable science section of the book, so I’ll sum it up by sharing that I found it interesting to learn that by seeing the impacts seizure drugs had on brains, they were able to see how a brain that is electrically unstable is one that is also more responsive to pain, becoming hypersensitive, like a wire easily tripped.
You want electrical stability in your brain if you also want to reduce or eliminate feelings of pain.
Reminder: the book is not implying that all pain is in your brain, it’s implying that the way the brain responds to the pain, will be a large part of determining just how much pain you feel.
Two other types of focus
Objective focus and immersed focus are the two other types of focus the authors have identified, and the book gives nice detail around them in later chapters. But I found this to be the most helpful example of what each one is.
Objective focus is a distancing of oneself – emotionally and perceptually – from the object of awareness. It’s like distraction, you’re focusing intently on not focusing on whatever thing you’re trying to avoid (dessert in the pantry, your aching knee, the pain of a breakup).
The problem with objective focus is that by distancing yourself from the pain, you never fully process it. Emotions come with pain, and they must be processed. Here’s an example I shared with a friend recently: when you play in a season-winning baseball game with friends, after the game you’re so excited, you’re elated! The joyful feelings are high, and you are feeling it.
But a week later, you’re not still feeling the high of all those great feelings. Because you immersed yourself in those feelings, they were allowed to move through you and dissipate out.
Objective focus removes the chance to dissipate painful emotions.
Immersed focus is the ‘flow state’, where you become one with the thing you’re focusing on, often losing boundaries between space, time, yourself, and the object of focus. It’s the type of focus you feel when you lose track of time. It’s what you do when you move closer to an experience in order to savor it more.
Immersed focus is something that you likely need to train yourself to do.
Especially since you’re taught from a young age to “focus, and stop daydreaming!” The good news is that there are a good number of exercises provided in the book. They are called Open Focus exercises and I found them very helpful in learning to use the various types of focus in my daily life, when I was dealing with pain, and when I meditated.
There is obviously quite a bit more the book covers on pain, using focus to affect pain, and case studies to back up their theories. My hope here was to share a few nuggets I picked up, and to open the door for considering that not all pain is such a simple path as injury → pain → doesn’t heal → chronic pain
Much of how you experience the world is impacted by your brain, your mind, your subconscious, your emotions, and your perceptions. I’m already a fan of exploring how and why a human responds to various situations and stimuli, and Dissolving Pain did a great job opening my eyes to yet another layer of the human response puzzle.
If you’re curious to learn more I suggest you get the book and dive in. And if you do, or if you’ve read the book, drop me a comment with your thoughts on the book over on the FFRL Facebook Page!
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If you found this article on how the brain responds to – and creates – pain helpful, you may also enjoy this online workshop
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