ILLNESS & PAIN
What do physical pain and emotional pain have in common?
They are both significantly impacted by your thoughts.
Whether you suffer from chronic pain or just experience the occasional acute pain that comes from being a human, thinking about pain in this way may strike you as odd.
We tend to assume the physical sensations in our bodies (particularly those associated with pain or illness) are Truth-with-a-capital-T. We think of pain as a circumstance.
But what exactly is pain?
Pain is your body’s alarm system.
It’s your body’s way of alerting your brain that something is going wrong.
It’s a sensation in your body and it’s mediated by your brain.
This is just like how we talk about an emotion, right?
In fact, you probably thought of emotions as unchangeable Truth, before you discovered thought work. You likely believed that your emotions just happened to you and you had to go along for the ride.
If you’ve been practicing what I teach on the podcast, you probably also know that’s (thankfully!) not actually true.
How you think about your emotions actually changes how they feel in your body.
When you resist an emotion or judge it as bad or scary, that emotion intensifies.
But when you accept it as a morally neutral physical sensation in your body, suddenly it feels less intense.
Pain is the same way.
As with emotions, your thoughts about the pain will impact how much attention you pay to it and how intense it feels.
When your lizard brain thinks there’s a threat, it yells at you.
When your body thinks you may be damaging it, it yells at your brain.
Pain is that yelling.
It’s a signal to your brain that something might be going wrong, and how you interpret that sensation can make a huge difference in your experience of it.
For example, let’s compare voluntary pain to involuntary pain.
Have you ever had a bikini wax?
Now, imagine the difference between paying for a bikini wax and being waxed against your will.
It’s technically the same physical sensation, but the latter would feel much worse to you because of your thoughts about it and what it meant.
The former would probably hurt for a few minutes and then you’d go on with your life. The latter you would be thinking about and reliving for much longer – and you’d keep paying attention to all the physical sensations in the aftermath which would amplify them.
Or think about people who identify as masochists, which means they find some forms of pain pleasurable in a sexual context. This doesn’t mean they experience ALL pain as pleasurable – but in a certain context, with certain thoughts accompanying it, they enjoy pain and seek it out.
Point is: How we think about pain and illness can have a huge impact on our experience of it.
If you suffer from chronic pain (or just occasional acute pain), it’s helpful to be curious about the thoughts that accompany your pain.
I have hypermobile joints and loose ligaments, so my sacrum and many other joints are often out of alignment. This creates pain and strain.
I used to experience this pain as a big problem, and it felt quite intense to me.
But once I explored my thoughts around this pain, I realized I had thoughts like:
- Something is wrong with me.
- I shouldn’t feel this way.
- My life would be better if my body were different.
- My body is a problem.
- My body is holding me back.
- My body is working against me.
Interestingly, these thoughts are very similar to my thoughts about my body before I worked on my body image. Even after I’d done work on my body image, the same old thoughts persisted – except this time they were about my pain, rather than my stomach.
My brain had validated these thoughts because it reasoned, they were the Truth About My Pain. But in fact, it was the same old bullsh*t thoughts at play: I’m not good enough, something is wrong, I’d be happier if it were different.
Sound familiar to you?
These three thoughts show up in so many areas of our lives.
And unsurprisingly, these thoughts make everything worse.
In this context, these thoughts made me both resistant to my pain and hyper-aware of it.
I resisted because I didn’t want the pain to be there, which of course amplified it. Resisting reinforced my brain’s thought that the pain was a big, scary danger to me. What happens when you think something is a danger? You become hyper-vigilant for it and notice it all the time.
Basically, all of these unexamined thoughts I was having about my pain were reinforcing the neural circuit of that pain. I was creating more pain for myself. Science backs this up – when you delve into pain science, you learn that pain is actually a learned mental response, just like a thought and feeling cycle.
Your brain literally learns the pain pattern.
If your brain can learn the pain pattern, it also stands to follow that people who experience chronic pain can get relief by learning to retrain their brain to reduce pain responses. I’m not saying that pain is entirely in your head, but I am saying that your experience of pain and other physical limitations is directly impacted by your thoughts about it.
In fact, sometimes your brain creates pain even with no physical impairment or problem actually present.
Sometimes there may be a physical stimulus that’s happening but your thoughts about what the pain means and your resistance to the pain intensify your experience of it – both emotionally and physically.
If you experience chronic pain or even temporary acute pain, it can be powerful to bring awareness to what you’re thinking about it and to embrace the power that you have to change your thoughts about your pain on purpose.
Even if doing so doesn’t eliminate the physical pain completely, it will relieve some of your emotional suffering and may even help reduce the physical pain.