Chronic Pain – Breaking the Pain Fear cycle
Have you ever met someone who has gone through a breakup, where they are wanting to find a new relationship, but they just keep talking to everyone about their old partner?
They want to move on, but letting go of familiar things can be hard, especially when there are strong emotional ties to those memories.
This is how our brain operates. Our brain loves to create new neural pathways when we have new experiences. It is how we learn new skills at work, and how we learn the way home.
But this process can work against us when it is something negative we are coming across over and over again each day.
This is because our brain also loves to reinforce old neural pathways whenever it comes across the same thing over and over. It is why when we can find ourselves driving towards our old house after we move, because our brain knows the way so well we don’t even have to think about it any more.
It works the same way with pain, especially when it becomes chronic. When we think about chronic pain over and over again every day, it makes the pain centres of the brain more and more switched on.
And because when we think about pain we tend to be scared or stressed, these strong emotions shift our brain into fight or flight mode, and strengthens the pathways even more.
By thinking about the pain, we can make the pain worse, and make it more likely that we spend time thinking about the pain, leading to a pain fear cycle.
So how can we stop this cycle?
We can use another feature of the brain, which is that it forgets pathways that are less and less activated. It is how we can forget skills that we have not practised recently, like how if we don’t practice playing the piano a little bit everyday we soon lose that skill, and how we easily lose our knowledge of complex math concepts straight after graduating high school because we aren’t learning about them every day.
So by thinking about pain less and less, it weakens the pain pathways in the brain, which makes it harder and harder to think about pain!
But how do we not think about something that can be with us all day long?
There are many ways to do this, but one of the simplest ways is to practice recognising when we are thinking about our pain and consciously, gently shifting our thoughts onto other things.
This act of becoming more conscious about what we are thinking about has been shown to be very effective at helping people to unlearn old, bad habits.
So we need to help our brain move and shift onto something else by gently reminding it to shift every time we notice it focusing on pain, just like we may gently remind our friend to focus on a new part of life after their breakup.
And one day, when we are no longer using the pain pathways, we may just find we have lost those pathways altogether.
Until next time,