Usually, when we feel pain, we can tell why. If we feel like we got stung by a bee, we look and can see where the bee stung us. If we're running by the pool and suddenly our toe hurts, we can look down and see that we stubbed it. It's natural to search for – and expect to find – a bodily injury that corresponds with any pain we are experiencing.
Those of us who deal with chronic pain can feel lost trying to figure out what structural issue in our body is causing it. It can be immensely frustrating and disheartening when doctors are unable to determine the reason for the pain we feel and, as a result, can't tell us how to make it go away. But maybe it's because our pain isn't always caused by a bodily injury. Author, lecturer, professor, and founder, and director of the Mind-Body Medicine Center at Providence Hospital in Southfield, MI, Dr. Howard Schubiner says that while all pain is real, it's created in the brain and physical symptoms can have non-physical causes.
In other words, the brain can cause almost any symptom to occur even if there's no structural injury or explanation for it.
Really, it all comes down to the power of the brain. According to Dr. Schubiner, we can re-teach our brain when it comes to certain associations and triggers around our chronic pain. In the end, this might allow us to eliminate our pain – without medicine or invasive surgery.
We just need to re-train our brains.
No big deal, right?
Our Pain Is Real …
How does it make you feel to hear that your pain is in your head? Annoyed? Defensive? After all, the pain you feel is real, you’re not imagining it, it actually hurts. It may disrupt your sleep, your social plans, your love life, and more.
But, it’s important to understand that there are different kinds of pain, and not all pain is caused by a bodily injury. In fact, on his website, Dr. Schubiner uses examples of being embarrassed and public speaking to support this theory (1). Did you know that the emotions that fuel embarrassment and anxiety can cause physical symptoms in some folks? Their faces might turn red or their stomachs might experience pain or discomfort. Similarly, someone living with IBS might experience cramps and/or have to use the bathroom after getting mentally worked up about visiting a new restaurant or a person with migraines might get one after a stressful day at work.
Emotions can indeed be strong enough to cause physical symptoms. This is something all humans experience at some point – or many times – throughout our lives. We aren't inventing our pain – our feelings are simply manifesting physically.
… So Is Our Ability To Will It Away
According to Dr. Schubiner, many times our chronic pain is a learned response or association, much like Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment in the 1890s. This means that, like Pavlov's dogs, we have been conditioned to associate a trigger (in the case of the dogs, a ticking metronome) with a response (i.e., drooling). In other words, the neural circuit (interconnected neurons that carry out our body’s functions) in our brain turns on and off and through repetition, it just stays on.
Dr. Schubiner suggests that this neural circuit needs to be "re-wired," and that one way we can do that is to imagine the situation that triggers our symptoms and remind ourselves that we are safe and not in danger. Common triggers might include stress, anxiety, certain situations, or really anything. In one interesting, albeit more extreme, case, a boy associated the reciting of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven with the onset of his epileptic seizures (2). Some people experience symptoms as they mentally prepare for the start of their workweek. In reality, although there are common triggers that impact many people, yours may be very specific to you depending on your upbringing, circumstances, and how your brain has learned certain associations.
Gradually exposing yourself to your triggers over time while telling yourself that no harm will come to you may allow you to overcome the pain. Your brain will eventually (and entirely) turn off that neural circuit and re-learn the association.
A Final Word From Lin
While the idea that your pain may not be caused by a structural issue might be somewhat hard to take, (especially since most of us are used to thinking that way), it's actually really good news!
Our brains are powerful and pliable. If we're open to it, we can change the way our brain reacts to the emotions and situations that trigger our symptoms. At Lin, our health coaches will work with you to identify the kind of pain you have and help you make your body as healthy as possible. We will design personalized care plans that will help you understand what is driving your pain and learn how to tone down your pain.
Exciting, isn’t it?