Getting Smarter about Pain

A couple weeks ago, I introduced some concepts on the workings of pain that I think are useful for everyone to know. They’re derived from my explorations into Traditional Chinese Medicine. Here’s a synopsis:

  • Virtually all pain is due to stagnation
  • Resistance promotes and worsens stagnation
  • All levels of our being are interconnected, so 
    • Stagnation can spread between levels
    • Movement on one level can alleviate stagnation on multiple levels
  • Relinquishing resistance restores the flow

When I speak of pain here, I don’t just mean physical pain, but also emotional pain and even “existential pain.” Understanding the workings of our pain can be tremendously useful in liberating ourselves from it. Working from this model, our main goal is to get back into a flow state, and there are lots of ways to do this. 

First and foremost, when we feel uncomfortable on any level, we can cause an immediate shift by not resisting what we’re feeling. Ultimately this is simply a choice – a choice that’s always available (albeit a choice we usually have to make over and over). However, it’s a choice that sometimes eludes us, so we can employ some methods to facilitate it. Breathing is a good place to start. 

When we are in a state of active resistance, this is usually reflected in the state of our breathing, which is restricted. Opening up the breath – breathing deeply and fully into the body and specifically into the area that’s restricted – can help us to feel willingly what’s up and to let go of resistance. Breathing promotes movement and helps to clear stagnation. I cover many different breathing methods in the Live Pain Free course, but the most basic approach is just to lengthen the exhale – that is, emphasizing the letting go phase of the breath. As we do this, we can visualize that the breath is opening and flowing through the body – or a particular region of the body – improving circulation, bringing in fresh blood, and encouraging the removal of waste. 

Exercise and stretching are also great for facilitating movement and clearing stagnation for the alleviation of pain of any kind. We can get more out of mobilizing the body if we actively intend that our movement is shaking up, dismantling, and releasing stuck emotions, negative thoughts, and other painful patterns. 

Using our voice is another way to promote movement. Whether through toning, singing, chanting, or speaking the truth, both the meaning and the sound vibration we express can have an opening effect on us. 

These are just a few of the many ways to restore flow when there is stagnation and thereby alleviate pain. Acceptance, forgiveness of oneself or someone else, letting go, trusting in the process, laughter, loving connections, and spending time admiring beauty such as in nature – all of these tend to have an opening or expansive effect on us that can profoundly affect our experience of pain.

Now, let’s look at a progressive way to understand pain from a scientific lens. A good starting definition is: Pain is the brain or mind telling you it thinks something is wrong. Whether it’s physical pain, emotional pain, or existential pain, there’s an implicit interpretation that this is not how things should be. The pain of depression, for instance, involves an interpretation that, “I shouldn’t feel this way. I should be happy.” The pain of arthritis involves a brain interpretation that a joint shouldn’t be grinding and inflamed the way that it is. In both cases, pain could be seen as an alert that the situation is threatening and requires intervention. 

This alert system is more often accurate and useful with acute pain than with chronic pain. For example, you feel burning pain in your fingertips, you move your hand without thinking, and you avoid skin damage from the hot iron you accidentally touched. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is almost always a mistake. 

A broader, more technical definition of pain can help us understand why these mistakes occur. Pain is an output – the result of processing in your nervous system – that’s unique to the person that’s experiencing it, and it involves numerous elements – nerves, immune cells, chemical messengers, memory, and emotion – that interact and combine to form a pattern that the brain labels as PAIN. (Thanks to pain researcher Ronald Melzack at McGill University for developing this definition.) This pattern is known as a neurotag or neurosignature and it’s more complex than we tend to think. Pain is as dependent on our psychology as it is on our physiology. 

For example, if you were once attacked by a dog and it was frightening and traumatic, something as minor as a dog swiping you with its paw in an attempt to get your attention could be experienced as severely painful because of the elements of memory, emotion, and interpretation. So it’s easy for inaccuracy to enter the pain equation. In this case, there is no danger, nothing wrong that needs to be addressed, but your brain sounds a loud alarm anyway. 

Even looking strictly at the biological workings of pain, there is still room for error, though. Acute injuries are usually completely healed within a matter of three to six months at most. The body part can be used normally at that point, so there should be no need for pain after that. However, during the initial event and the healing process, a persistent neurosignature may develop. During all the yelling, crying, and wincing, the nervous system can become sensitized in such a way that the alarm won’t turn off and/or it’s easily retriggered by related images, scents, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and memories. 

At this point – and this is true of virtually all chronic pain – it serves no useful purpose. So there’s little value in trying to track down a tissue pathology, and even less in utilizing an addictive mind-numbing pharmaceutical to make it go away. Instead (or in combination with pharmaceutical interventions, if necessary) we can utilize approaches that take advantage of the phenomenon of neuroplasticity – the ability to change our wiring. 

We explore many, many such approaches in my online course, Live Pain Free, and I encourage you to check it out if you struggle with pain. The most useful thing, as I discussed in the last installment of this article, may be simply knowing how pain works. I sincerely hope these articles have given you a new way to understand pain that helps liberate you from its grasp. 

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten 

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