Pain & the Mind-Body Connection

What is pain?

Pain is a warning system in the body. There are two types of pain: acute pain and chronic pain. We need acute pain to survive. If we step on a nail or burn our skin, we need to know that something is wrong so we can seek proper medical attention. When this happens, a signal is sent up the spine through the nervous system and into the brain where it is then evaluated by different parts of the brain. These different parts of the brain include the motor cortex (what you are doing in that moment) and the sensory cortex (what part of the body the signal is coming from). The signal also travels to the parts of the brain where thoughts, memories, and knowledge of our bodies are stored. Therefore, the brain is looking at our “neuro-matrix”, which is the accumulation of our past experiences (those we remember and those we do not remember, from birth to death), beliefs, thoughts we focus on throughout the day, our emotional state, and our overall understanding and perception of the situation.  The brain decides what is painful or not, depending on our brain’s perception and understanding of the situation. This process happens in micro-seconds, without our conscious control. This process can decrease or increase our experience of pain, depending on the perceived “danger” level of those signals. The more we understand what is going on in the body, how chronic pain or “danger signals” are processed in the body and mind, and the more “tools” we have to temper these signals and how they are reacted to in the brain, the less pain we are likely to experience.

“Chronic pain” is the result of our brain interpreting signals through our nervous system commonly long after the actual tissue damage has healed. Triggers of these signals can include one or all of the following: functional systems (bladder, bowel, or uterus/prostate), structural systems (muscles and ligaments in spasm, nerves firing, tingling, burning, itching of surface tissues), all of which add up in our memories, emotions, and thoughts. When the trigger is a memory, emotion, or thought (conscious or unconscious), it lights up the neuro-matrix connected to our sensory cortex. This phenomenon is similar to “phantom limb syndrome” where the individual experiences pain in a part of the body that is no longer there. Focused training redirecting the mind can help our brains avoid these particular triggers and signals as much as possible. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and diaphragmatic breathing techniques are proven tools to help guide us through this process.

Our Body’s “Fight or Flight” Response

Fear triggers our brain to produce chemicals that make it more difficult for us to relax. In fact, mere emotions and thoughts (both conscious and unconscious) can trigger this chemical reaction placing us in the “fight or flight” response. When the body goes into this mode, it is an evolutionary protective response, as if there was a dangerous lion in the room. This “fight or flight” response causes muscle spasm (to give you strength to fight or run away), increased heart rate, dilated pupils, shallow breathing, and other autonomic nervous system responses, such as dry mouth, slower immune response, and inhibited digestion. The brain then seeks more feedback from the body to know more about what’s happening, increasing the sensitivity in the nervous system. Our brain “turns the volume up” on our nervous system. Regretfully, this means that our physical sensations increase and consequently we feel more pain. In other words, when it comes to pain, the more we fear it, the more we feel it.

Emotions & Pain

Our emotions affect how we feel and interpret physical sensations. Our beliefs, emotions, and thoughts all affect how we feel pain.  Research is establishing that depression, anxiety, and guilt can all make it more difficult for us to cope with pain. Fear and worry can especially increase the amount of pain we feel.  When we are afraid, our muscles tense, the heart begins to race, and we may begin to tell ourselves things like, “I can’t relax, this really hurts, I can’t handle this.”   Then, the next thing you know, we can’t relax and every sensation actually does become more painful. A positive, less fearful emotional state, like being confident and relaxed, can help coping with pain easier.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment without judgment or trying to change anything.  It is a “being” state of mind rather than a “doing” state of mind. Often, we focus on the past (what we should/could/would of have done differently) or the future (what is going to happen). Mindfulness-based techniques help guide us into the present moment. Through this practice of being present one can quiet the mind and calm the body. It works to relax the body through diaphragmatic breathing while relaxing the mind through redirecting conscious awareness. Mindfulness practice is ideal for cultivating greater awareness of the unity of mind and body, as well as understanding how our conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can undermine emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

The benefits of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) address a variety of health problems. The mind is an important factor in chronic pain and other stress and stress-related disorders. Scientific research establishes that MBSR positively affects a range of autonomic physiological processes involved in reducing chronic pain, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing overall physical and emotional arousal and reactivity. Mindfulness is a lifetime engagement – helping all of us counter the inevitable dissociation that we all tend to develop as a protective mechanism against pain and other types of trauma.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the techniques utilized in MBSR. It results in decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, nerve pain, muscle tension, and racing thoughts by guiding our nervous system away from the “fight or flight” response towards a more calm, restorative state.