Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop hosted by Dr. John Stracks and Nicole Sachs, LCSW. The conference brought in individuals from near and far but all of the individuals had one thing in common; they were experiencing some form of chronic pain/discomfort.
Chronic pain is an epidemic, and the root of the pain, as well as the solution to overcoming the discomfort, might come as a surprise to some.
Chronic pain is a fear response.
It is a reaction we have to feel out of control. Our brain is identifying danger when in actuality, there is no physical threat. The human brain is the most powerful tool we have, which means that just as it initially is the reason that the pain is felt, it can be reversed, too. Our brain keeps us out of harm’s way. If we place our hand on a hot stove, it is the message from our brain that prompts us to feel pain and remove our hand to keep it safe. However, sometimes our brain feels like our body is in danger and sends a pain response in an attempt to keep ourselves safe.
Now, for something that will come as a bigger surprise.
Our brain and the nervous system sometimes view our emotions as dangerous. Think about it, if we grow up holding in our anger because we are told its “not proper” to have outbursts or big emotions, we learn that it is not safe to show the emotion of anger. Over time, every time you feel angry you push that further and further inside. You can only stuff those emotions down for so long until they begin to spill out. But we can’t let those feelings out! Remember, “it’s unsafe to express anger.” So, the brain decides it’s safer to feel physical pain than emotional pain.
Our brain is trying to protect us.
Let’s discuss the difference between acute and chronic pain. Acute pain typically lasts for under 6 months. Our tissues and nerves are repairing from an injury during this time and our body’s are working to repair them. Acute pain can be as short-lived as a finger slammed in a door, which takes moments to heal, or a bike accident resulting in a broken leg which takes weeks to recover. Chronic pain is different. It can be long term pain. And this type of pain does not convey danger even though it feels dangerous. We must initially understand that the pain is not brought on from any physical activity. Our brains tend to make associations between the external world and our feelings. If we sit on a firm couch instead of the typical soft one, my back will hurt. Hence, any firm chair or couch will result in pain. From that association, we are training our brains that the chair/couch is dangerous to our physical state.
Because of this, any time you engage in sitting on these, our body goes into fight or flight and brings on pain response.
Just as we wire our brains to connect the two, we can rewire our brains to learn that the chair is actually safe and not the reason for pain. Sometimes, our traumas are so emotionally heavy, we subconsciously choose to feel physical pain rather than process the emotions that come with the trauma. The pain is a signal that there is something inside that needs attending to. The data supporting the relationship between chronic pain and repressed emotions is strong. But you do not need to go through navigating these feelings alone. Find a therapist that understands you and I hope you feel empowered to move forward and take care of your body and mind.