It has been my repeated experience that folks who suffer with chronic pain, fibromyalgia, IBS Vertigo and other diagnoses for which the medical community can find no cause, they are often told that "it's anxiety" or "it's functional" and to "reduce stress". It has also been my experience that people find these responses to be minimizing, offensive, and kind of empty. In this blog, I will reverse some old stigma related to Mind-Body issues and offer some relevant, real hope.
Let's Talk About "Psycho-Somatic"
This is a phrase that has become synonymous with "all in your head" or "made up" or "not real". I don't use this term because it's outdated, it doesn't communicate the reality that this person has real pain, and it carries a good deal of stigma. Instead, I talk about Neural Pathway Pain and Mind-Body Issues. These terms reflect what we know: people with this kind of pain have real pain that can range from uncomfortable to debilitating and that the mind and the body is always connected.
What is "Neural Pathway Pain"?
First, the sensation of pain is always activated in the brain. Sometimes we break a bone and the brain activates its pain centers via neural pathways--millions of cells that communicate through our body to our brain. Our brain activates pain as a protective measure. If we have pain in our broken leg, we won't walk on it and injure it more. Sometimes, after an injury is healed, we continue to feel pain. This happens often when lots of fear or emotion is involved. The more we are afraid of the pain, the worse the pain, the stronger the pain pathway becomes. When these pathways become very strong, it's possible that we still feel the pain even though the structural injury has fully healed. It's also possible that even without a structural injury--like the pain found in IBS or Fibromyalgia--the neural pathways activate our brain's pain center, causing us to feel great pain.
Our brains can't decipher between physical and emotional pain
For our brains, pain is pain. And emotional pain hurts. It is real. It hurts everywhere in our bodies. When we are sad, we cry, we might feel tense in our stomach, we might feel heavy in our neck, or shoulders. When we are angry or scared, we might feel our heart race, we might feel tense in our jaw, in our eyes, in our face, we might contract the muscles in our stomach, and our legs are ready to run. All emotions are physical and physiological. And so the brain can't tell the difference, nor can our neural pathways.
When we are chronically distressed, the stress lives in our body
If we are angry or scared for a long time, our body gets used to being clenched, tense, guarded. Not only can these somatic patterns trigger the neural pathways to activate our pain centers, but these somatic patterns can actually activate more fear and anger, which then increases tension, clenching and then further strengthens the pain pathways and response. If we inhibit our sadness or tears as a way to "be strong", we are also tensing our bodies. Think of all the energy and muscular motion it takes to stop yourself from crying! And similarly, this tension and inhibition can activate neural pathways and pain centers, while also increasing tension and feelings of fear/sadness, thereby increasing the pain.
When people are living with neural pathway pain, they can feel stuck. They are literally caught in a cycle of escalation. The good news is that the brain is "plastic" and can change, re-wire itself into new pathways--"no pain pathways". Therapy is one very effective way to do this. By fostering a strong therapeutic relationship where you feel safe and can believe in your treatment, you can begin to:
learn more about mind-body issues and neural pathway pain
find ways to cope with your pain and discomfort, as well as fear, disappointment and anger
understand and reconcile underlying emotional themes and dynamics that led to the clenching and tension in the first place
Healing from Neural Pathway Pain or Mind-Body Issues is HARD WORK, but can be life-changing as well! If you are experiencing mind-body issues, consider investing in therapy with someone who is trained and experienced in this particular area. Commit to being in therapy at least twice a week--it takes time and frequency to re-direct out of pain pathways and to create or strengthen "non pain pathways".
**For more information, check out this video, “Explaining chronic pain: The role that stress plays and the creation of learned nerve pathways”. To begin therapy, call me today at Creating Space Counseling and Wellness, 856-281-1664.