Does Thinking About Pain Make It Worse?

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Although everyone who has experienced chronic or acute pain would argue, V.S. Ramachandran, who is an experienced neuroscientist has once claimed that pain is not a response to the injury, but it is an opinion on the organism’s state of health. Although pain caused by migraines, EDS pain, or pain caused by other medical conditions is certainly real, the scientist argues that pain isn’t just the reaction to the factual, but that instead, the issue is much more complicated. 

The mirror box experiment

The reason why patients experience pain can sometimes be a little surprising. It is not a rare occurrence for people to feel pain radiating from missing limbs. How is that possible? It seems that the pain is not a response to the objective reality. To help people with phantom pain, Ramachandran invented a technique called “mirror box”. By positioning mirrors in a specific way, the neuroscientist created an illusion that the limb of the patient had been restored. The result? The patient stopped feeling the pain in the missing limb. The mere illusion was enough to convince the brain of the patient that there is no longer a need for pain. The “mirror box” method became popular and helped many people who experienced pain in the missing limbs.

This rather extreme example shows us that although brains are insanely complex, they too get fooled. When it comes to other types of pain, the brain likewise is often led astray. How?

The expectations

In another experiment, the scientists asked the participants to rate on scale 0-100 how much pain they expect to feel. They were placed inside the MRI machine, and before the electrodes that were placed on their skin would heat up, they were shown pictures signaling the intensity of the pain. As it turns out, if they expected the pain to be more intense, they did, in fact, experience stronger pain. It means that there is no such thing as an objective measure of pain. 2 different people, when put in the same situation, would each feel a different intensity of the pain. Our brains are not only stating the facts (it hurts), but our thoughts can even influence how strong the pain that we feel is. That’s why your thoughts have a huge impact on how you deal with the pain. It’s not only about “staying positive” and ignoring the pain – as it turns out, negative thinking can actually intensify the pain!

Okay, so if negative thoughts are so detrimental, then how to deal with them if you are experiencing the pain that might be, at times, unbearable? There are several things that you should try to avoid. You shouldn’t, by any means, feel ashamed if you find yourself engaging in one of the behaviors that you will find below due to the pain. Despite our advanced medicine, some people have to deal with terrible pain for their entire lives, and staying positive might be sometimes impossible. The pain might be terrifying, but there are ways to deal with this issue, at least to some extent. 

  • Even though the pain that you feel might be intense, it shouldn’t be the only thing that you focus on. Even if you feel that right at this moment, you feel completely miserable, has it always been the case? It is unlikely that your entire life was full of sad episodes. The pain might not go away in a minute, or perhaps maybe not even do so in an hour, or a day, but no matter how oppressing it might currently seem, there will be better moments waiting for you.
  • Although it is 2020 already, the drugs that you are taking to deal with pain might not always work. Our bodies are complex mechanisms, and there are still many things that we don’t know about them. If the pain that you are experiencing makes it difficult to function normally, you should try to find other solutions to this problem. You might think that in those dark moments you need some hope, but you shouldn’t have too high expectations when it comes to medications. If it works, great, but if it doesn’t, then it’s time to try something new. This journey toward normalcy might take some time, but please, be patient.
  • If there is no way to deal with the pain at the moment, then learning how to accept it can make your experience less taxing. You might want to curse fate, God, or your existence, and that’s understandable. What is the purpose of your pain? Unfortunately, it isn’t likely that such deliberations will be helpful. Paradoxically, by accepting the pain you can stop being so mentally taxed by every painful episode. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy. If you think that it might be helpful, you could contact a spiritual counselor.

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