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How Self-Criticism Sets Off the Brain's Danger Alarm and Chronic Pain


Self-criticism is a common aspect of being human, and while it can serve as a driving force for self-improvement, it can also have detrimental effects on mental health. This blog post explores the intriguing concept of self-criticism and how it signals the brain's danger alarm. By understanding this phenomenon, we can gain insights into the physiological impact of self-criticism.

Self-Criticism: Friend or Foe?

Self-criticism refers to the habit of evaluating and judging oneself negatively. It often involves harsh self-talk, perfectionistic tendencies, and feelings of inadequacy. While constructive self-evaluation can be a healthy motivator for personal growth, excessive self-criticism can tip the scales, leading to emotional distress, anxiety, and even chronic pain.

The Brain's Alarm System

The brain's danger alarm system, often referred to as the "fight or flight" response, is crucial for human survival. When faced with a real or perceived threat, the brain triggers a complex cascade of physiological responses to prepare the body to react. This includes the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which increase alertness and readiness for action.

The Link Between Self-Criticism and the Danger Alarm

So, what's the connection between self-criticism and the brain's danger alarm? It turns out that when you engage in self-criticism, your brain can't always differentiate between a harsh self-judgment and an external threat. As a result, it may interpret self-criticism as a danger signal, leading to a stress response even in non-life-threatening situations. Here's how it works:

1. Hypervigilance: Self-criticism can put your brain on high alert, constantly scanning for potential errors or shortcomings. This hypervigilance can create a chronic state of stress, as your brain is always on the lookout for perceived threats.

2. Stress Hormone Release: The brain responds to self-criticism by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol, and inflammatory markers. These hormones prepare your body for action, but when this response is chronic, it can lead to health issues such as increased blood pressure, weakened immune function, disrupted sleep patterns, and chronic pain.

3. Physical and Emotional Distress: The stress response triggered by self-criticism can lead to physical and emotional distress, including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and even burnout. These emotional states can perpetuate the cycle of self-criticism, as you may become more critical of yourself due to your perceived inability to cope with stress.

Breaking the Cycle

Recognizing the connection between self-criticism and the brain's danger alarm is the first step toward breaking this detrimental cycle. Here are some strategies to help manage self-criticism:

1. Practice Self-Compassion: Instead of being overly critical, practice self-compassion. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer a friend facing a similar situation.

2. Mindfulness: Engaging in mindfulness practices can help you become aware of self-critical thoughts as they arise, allowing you to intervene and reframe them in a more positive and balanced way.

3. Positive Self-Talk: When you notice self-criticism, challenge self-criticism with positive self-talk. Encourage and motivate yourself, focusing on your strengths and achievements. You cannot pretend to be positive. The positive self-talk must be genuine and real.


Self-criticism is a complex phenomenon that can trigger the brain's danger alarm, leading to chronic stress, emotional, and physical distress and pain. By understanding this connection, we can take steps to mitigate the negative impact of self-criticism on our mental and physical well-being. Practicing self-compassion, mindfulness, and positive self-talk can help you navigate the fine line between self-improvement and self-criticism, ultimately promoting a healthier and more balanced sense of self. Remember that self-compassion is not a sign of weakness; it is a powerful tool for fostering self-growth and well-being.

Contact us today for help with your journey out of pain. We help frustrated people living with chronic pain who are tired of suffering discover their individualized MPC Pain-Free Formula™ with the goal of recovery or significantly reducing pain so they can participate fully in life again. Let us help you rebuild after a chronic pain diagnosis even if it has been decades.

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Cynthia Austin, NBC-HWC


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