The experience of pain is influenced by more than simply whether or not you have tissue damage. It can also be influenced by your thoughts, your beliefs, your worries, past experiences you’ve had, what kind of stressors you’re dealing with in life right now, and much more. In this article, you’ll learn helpful tips to assist you as you are healing pain you may be experiencing.
Threat Perception & Your Brain
Your brain is constantly assessing the situation and determining if there is a threat it should protect you from. Pain is one way your brain protects you – and it makes this decision based on a multitude of factors.
Your brain uses context to organize the signals it is receiving, and to aid it in deciding what kind of response it should create. That context comes from information that is always flowing between the brain and the body. Information going to and from the brain includes –
- proprioception, the organization of your body moving through space
- interoception, the sensing of the internal state of your body
- exteroception, the sensing of things outside of your body that you can feel
- cognition, which includes your beliefs, perception, expectations, fears, etc.
And so, you might have some kind of tissue damage contributing to the painful sensation you’re experiencing. But you also might not. And either way, the other things your brain is processing influence how you feel pain.
Stories Provide Context
You’ve probably seen images like this before…
Most of the letters are scrambled, and yet, you can still read it easily. While researchers aren’t totally certain why we can read jumbled words and still know how organize them correctly as if they weren’t, there is one consistently strong theory – context!
“We use context to pre-activate the areas of our brains that correspond to what we expect next”, Marta Kutas explained. Marta is a Professor and Chair of cognitive science and an adjunct professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego. She also directs the Center for Research in Language at UCSD.
For example, brain scans reveal that if we hear a sound that leads us to strongly suspect another sound is on the way, the brain acts as if we’re already hearing the second sound. Similarly, if we see a certain collection of letters or words, our brains jump to conclusions about what comes next. “We use context to help us perceive,” Kutas said.
In all areas, the stories we tell ourselves create the reality we experience.
Change The Story,
Change The Context
The signals, responses, and stories, that your brain is processing and contextualizing can completely change the experience of healing pain. Here’s one example of how different perception about the same physical thing influenced two very different outcomes:
In a study where participants were interviewed about their stress levels, those who perceived that ‘high stress’ was a bad thing for their health were twice as likely to have heart attacks than people who did not believe that. This was independent of their actual stress levels.
What the people perceived and believed seemed to influence what physical manifestations occurred in their bodies.
Here’s another example, this time showing how different physiological effects occur depending on what type of brain focus is being used by an individual:
When in narrow focus attention, your system is more primed to tense its muscles, you are more sensitive to pain, and you increase the frequency of brain waves (lower frequency brain waves are used for sleeping, meditation and restoration whereas higher frequency brain waves are for processing and staying alert, and are also correlated anxiety).
When in diffuse focus attention, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) starts to quiet and your parasympathetic functions start to engage (rest and digestion), you increase blood flow to muscles, and your muscles and joints are less likely to hold excess tension.
As you can see, simply tapping into a different form of focus in the brain, the experience in the body is vastly different.
One of my major themes I teach on is that of signal/response, the essence of which is this: every signal (or lack thereof) elicits a response.
You may have experienced situations in the past that led your brain and body to organize a response that is no longer ideal or necessary for you. Personally, because I have experienced PTSD-level stress, my old response to someone jokingly frightening me by shouting “boo!” when I walked into a room was to punch that person in the face as fast as possible. Not the correct reaction for a “joking around” situation, but entirely the correct reaction for a system that can’t discern between the various kinds of sudden system stimulus.
So how do you re-teach your system to be discerning?
That is an incredibly complex process, but here are three non-negotiables for every coaching client I work with who is healing their aches and pains, and getting back to powerful, pain-free, movement:
- Give your nervous system more and enough information so that it that can respond appropriately to the situation at hand, and so it can oscillate between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system in a harmonious way.
- Learn to breathe properly to restore oscillation in your autonomic nervous system.
- Begin to root out any beliefs you have about your body that you are now realizing may be keeping you timid, fearful, worried, or stressed, about your body.
To learn more about these three things, please opt in for my free newsletter, where I share more articles, tips, and videos, to help you become strong and pain-free. Additionally, please check out my Unbreakable Body programs that help you put into action what you learn in my articles and videos.
While the story of how pain happens is a complex one, it’s not too complicated for you. Deciding you’re going to figure out how to re-write your story, learn about your body, and uncover the signals you need to send to your body to feel and move your best, is one of the most empowering things in the world.