Pain is meant to protect us by alerting us to make necessary adjustments to alleviate or tend to a problem within our bodies, but sometimes chronic pain goes into overdrive, even when there is not a physical event, escalating pain to an unbearable 8 or 9. Looking around at our physical issues and our environment is helpful to determine where the pain is coming from and what actions to take, but until we deal with our emotions also, we may not feel better even after we have physically healed.
First, let’s note that ALL PAIN IS REAL! That must be the underpinnings of all our posts about chronic pain. Being able to trust your own pain experience lends a feeling of having control of the pain situation. No one can tell you that you are not in pain if you feel pain no matter whether it is physical or emotional pain that you feel in your body. That in itself can be calming emotionally. When you stop trying to prove how bad you hurt, it may lessen the grip that pain has on your life by depleting its power.
That being said…there are key emotions that drive chronic pain. In this series, we will look at those emotions closely and where they fit in relation to chronic pain. The key emotions that make the pain worse are fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, grief, and helplessness.
“Your emotions are not imaginary constructs but real physiological events taking place in your brain that then trigger a cascade of consequences leading to REAL physical pain.”
—Mel Pohl, MD, Katherine Ketcham: THE PAIN ANTIDOTE
Think of a time when things did not go as planned during your routine day. Something or someone was interjected into your life that you did not expect which created a bit of frustration. Frustration at things not going as planned can morph into anger very quickly when we want to push away something that we don’t like but can’t avoid. Evidence-based research has proven that emotions like these can make our pain experience worse.
When pain increases to an eight or a nine, intense thoughts can carry us away to believing in a future scenario of excruciating, intolerable pain, and feebleness if we allow our imagination to go wild. Every emotion we feel is linked with other emotions creating a cascade of emotions flowing together. When it is negative emotions flowing, we actually have a physiological process that happens within the body such as becoming tense and shallow breathing leading to increased pain.
Anger causes anxiety and anxiety contribute to anger. Guilt and shame blend together making it hard to distinguish which emotion it is and where it comes from. Just like depression and anxiety are the cousins of chronic pain, all the emotions: fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, grief, and helplessness, are also cousins that congregate within our brain creating pain through the body's response to the negative emotional thought patterns.
Research has shown that exciting or disturbing feelings agitate and activate the same areas of our brain that light up when we feel chronic pain. One large component in gaining control of our pain is getting a handle on our emotional responses to frustrating situations.
The awesome news is that we can get these intense emotions that drive chronic pain out of the driver seat and gain back our control over our pain and our life. One way we can do this is to become more aware of the pain and to notice what emotions are coming up at that moment or right before.
Keeping a short-term pain journal to keep track of your pain along with the emotions you are feeling during a day can be beneficial to understand how your emotions are contributing to your pain. I do not recommend keeping a long-time pain journal only because it keeps us focused on the pain constantly, but keeping track of your pain and emotions for a week or so can open our eyes to the strong connection between pain and emotions.
With this knowledge, you can begin to address powerful emotions that are keeping you trapped in a life of living with unmanageable chronic pain. Knowledge and awareness of the emotions and pain connections are powerful tools to have in your toolbox for the self-management of your pain.
Throughout this series, “Emotions Drive Pain,” we will continue to look at each emotion: fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, grief, and helplessness and how they drive the pain experience. These emotions can be difficult to face at times, but there is a quote that sums it up nicely:
"There are two kinds of suffering:
the suffering that leads to more suffering and
the suffering that leads to the end of suffering.
If you are not willing to face the second kind of suffering,
you will surely continue to experience the first."
--Ajahn Chah, A Still Forest Pool
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