A Surprising Solution to Address Chronic Pain
Shift your focus off of the problem and onto the solution.
Posted Jan 21, 2020
To master a new language requires a focused commitment for a long period of time. If you wanted to become fluent in French, it would take years of reading books, attending classes, listening to audiotapes, and probably immersing yourself in the culture. Eventually, a new part of your brain would develop that enables you to speak French.
This is possible because of the brain’s capacity to change by increasing the number of neurons and connections between them. The brain produces an insulating material, called myelin, and as new connections are made, changes occur in the glial cells. These are the supporting cells of the central nervous system. This process of acquiring new neural connections is called “neuroplasticity,” and your brain changes every second. (1)
Not Speaking English
You can’t learn French by “not speaking English.” What a ridiculous idea!
By constantly (and understandably) seeking a cure or discussing your pain with those around you, you’re reinforcing the pain circuits. As they become more deeply embedded in your nervous system, you’ll use the creative part of your brain less. In fact, research shows that the brain physically shrinks in the presence of unrelenting pain. Fortunately, it re-expands once you have healed. (2)
What You Resist Will Persist
One of the core neuroscience-based concepts of solving chronic pain revolves around the current definition that it "… is an embedded memory that becomes connected to more and more life experiences, and the memory can’t be erased.” (3) Once you’ve developed chronic pain, the connections are permanent. The more you fight them, the stronger they’ll become.
Continually discussing or pursuing a cure is understandable, but it can also be compared to putting your hand right into a hornet’s nest. Your attention is on the problem and not the solution. So, what do you do?
These are some counterproductive practices that keep your pain at the forefront:
- The endless quest for a cure
- Frequently discussing your pain or medical care
- Not being willing to learn new ideas or being open to change
An Enjoyable Life
What you can do is learn a new language, which I have termed “an enjoyable life.” Since anxiety and anger are basic survival responses, that’s where your brain is programmed to go as the default language. These automatic responses become stronger with age and repetition. To train your brain differently requires a deliberate, long-term, focused effort.
The first step in any new endeavor is to create a vision of where you want to go. What do you want your life to look like? Do you want to live in this state of affairs indefinitely? You can’t accomplish anything of significance until you know what it looks like and internalize it.
What you’re doing by creating and pursuing what you want is developing a new nervous system within your existing one. It’s like putting a virtual computer on your desktop. As you continue to work on learning the language of “an enjoyable life,” you’ll be paying less attention to the pain circuits, and they will atrophy from disuse.
At some tipping point, your pain and anxiety will diminish dramatically—but not by trying to make them drop. It’s similar to re-directing a river into a different channel. It will be slow at first, but as the flow of water is diverted, the force of the water will help create the new channel.
Learning the New Language
While the process may seem overwhelming at first, you can create changes in your brain and its response to pain. The strategies include:
- Reconnecting with the best part of who you are
- Active meditation—placing your attention on a different sensation
- Re-learning how to play
- Somatic work—connecting thoughts with physical sensations
- Expressive writing
- Re-engaging with familiar art, hobbies, music, dance, sports, etc.
- Spending quality time with family and friends (53 percent of Americans are socially isolated)
- Forgiveness—you can’t move forward while you’re hanging on to the past
- Giving back—there are an endless number of possibilities
- Listening—it’s more interesting than re-hashing your own views on life
- Creating your vision in detail of how you want your life to look
- Getting organized so as to be able to execute your vision
Your brain changes every millisecond. The amygdala is part of a series of circuits that encode external stimuli as noxious. In chronic pain, even normally neutral input may be perceived as unpleasant. (4)
With mindfulness-based treatments, the amygdala can diminish in size. (5) You have a choice of what part of your brain you want to stimulate to grow. Where do you want to place your attention? What language do you want to master?
1. Feldman Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions are Made. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, NY, NY, 2017.
2. Seminowicz DA, et al. “Effective treatment of chronic low back pain in humans reverses abnormal brain anatomy and function.” The Journal of Neuroscience (2011); 31: 7540-7550.
3. Baliki MN and A Vania Apkarian. “Nociception, pain, negative moods, and behavior selection.” Neuron (2015); 87: 474-491.
4. Corder, et al. An amygdalar neural ensemble that encodes the unpleasantness of pain. Science (2019); 363: 276-281.
5. Holzel, BK, et al. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. SCAN (2010); 5:11-17.