Is this pain ‘all in my head?’
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
- Buddhist Proverb
“Are you saying it is all in my head?” is a common accusation hurled at clinician if they have raised the possibility that a problem may have a psychological cause.
When we have a physical symptom, a pain or malfunction in a body system, it feels insulting and unfair for anyone to have it suggested that the origin may have come from within our brain. It sounds to us as if the clinicians think we are making it up. At a deeper level it is also frightening because, if the physical symptom has been generated unconsciously by us, then we must accept responsibility for our condition. This means that we are the only ones who can do anything about it and that thought can be overwhelming. It is much less challenging to search for a disease process which becomes the responsibility of others to fix.
When we challenge our clinicians in this way we are either consciously or more likely unconsciously deflecting away from the uncomfortable thoughts described above. Fear makes us defensive and angry. Most clinicians will back away at this and join us in a fruitless search for a diagnosis to blame.
There is another way
We can be open to the power of recognising that the majority of our responses absolutely come from within our head. The brain is the operating centre of our body. Everything that we experience is processed here, and it coordinates our responses using body chemicals which activate and control our systems.
In fact, our physical and mental health are inextricably linked. A 2017 study looking at this, showed that our past mental health has a significant direct and indirect impact on our current physical health and vice versa. In more poetic terms, they walk hand in hand.
When we are positive and have a good sense of purpose and achievement, we feel happy and fulfilled. We are content. In this state of mind pain is less intense and other symptoms often melt away. We no longer notice them
When we are low and experiencing negative thoughts, often our pain feels worse. We focus on our symptoms, thinking about them all the time, projecting ourselves into a fearful future where our worst fears are realised. In this state of mind, our symptoms are amplified.
The power of this link between mind and body can be used to good effect. It means that, by improving our mindset, we can positively affect our physical health. We can be grateful that it is all in our head and work to down-regulate our symptoms and moderate the pain we feel.
This week we want to share a very useful technique to help with pain – which is of course controlled by our brain.
Before we share this please remember that if your pain is undiagnosed, consult a health professional.
When anxious thoughts are triggering fight-flight responses and making chronic pain worse, Press Pause
Bring yourself into the present moment where you are safe
Focus on your breath
Observe its tidal quality
slow and deep
Allow the out breath to become longer than the in breath
Feel the tension drain out of your body
Allow your heart rate to slow
Now move your attention to the part of the body that is painful
Place your hand on the area
If appropriate, massage it gently
This brings warmth to the area and encourages blood flow with natural anti-inflammatory properties
Now imagine a dial
You can clearly see the a colour code from red to blue
Ref is high blue is low
Notice where the dial is set
Is it turned to the right, full red on the highest setting?
Reach out and take hold of the dial
Turn it up slightly to feel the pain a little more keenly
Now turn it all the way down so it is set in the blue zone
As you do this keep your breaths slow and deep
Notice your pain start to ease
Feel it turn from red to blue
From high to low
Sit with those feelings of ease and relief for a few moments enjoying a deep feeling of peace
Now bring yourself back to full awareness with a renewed lightness in your step
Share this technique with anyone you know who suffers from pain.
J. Ohrnberger, E. Fichera, M. Sutton, The relationship between physical and mental health: a mediation analysis. Soc. Sci. Med., 195 (2017), pp. 42-49