In the last blog post, we talked about the physical input of pain gathered from our tissues and how pain is not processed in the damaged or diseased tissue itself, but in the fascia where the receptors of the nervous system reside.
Input of pain from receptors of damaged tissue is also mixed with other input in our nervous system from our thoughts, emotions, and memories of past experiences. In fact, these are the filters through which we process the physical pain, which accounts for how widely we experience what should be the same amount of pain for the same physical injury
Let’s look at the environmental factors that feed into our experience of pain. If we grew up in a household where we were neglected unless we were sick, we might experience pain more intensely as a subconscious way of getting attention we crave. If we grew up in a loving, but stoic home where we were expected to suck it up and soldier on whenever we encountered an injury or problem, that’s probably how we still relate to pain; we’ll just not feel it as much. If we’re under a massive amount of stress to get a project done at work, we might tell our bodies that we need to power through this, and adrenaline will kick in to keep us from feeling pain so intensely, enabling us to get something done. This is how people do superhuman things despite being injured in an accident or on the battlefield, and this is also how we fall apart in a heap of pain or sickness after the adrenaline rush has subsided. Nearly all of this operates at a subconscious level most of the time.
It used to be thought that there was an emotional center in our brains somewhere that processed feelings. However, when Candace Pert went looking for this center, she discovered that our emotional centers were actually spread throughout the body's nervous system. This is why when someone touches us in a certain place and/or a certain way, a whole flood of memories or emotions may come rushing back. Our bodies tense up in anticipation of someone approaching a place of injury, especially if that injury was treated roughly in the past. Four years after my first husband had died and I was newly remarried, I got a massage after a long time of not having one, and I sobbed through the whole hour. Why? I had held the stress of grief and feeling so unsafe for so long in my body, and now that I was in a good place in my life and in a safe, caring place, I was able to let it all go. I was crying in relief.
Sometimes our chronic pain patterns are trying to get our attention to deal with emotions wrapped up around a past event. For instance, I recently heard about a man with chronic pain from a whiplash injury. He’d done everything for this pain—chiropractic, massage, physical therapy, psychological therapy, surgery. Nothing really helped--until a massage therapist asked him to tell her about the accident. He recounted how he’d gotten into the car after a testy argument with his wife and was backing out of the driveway to leave when he’d been hit from the side. “Do you think you being mad at your wife has anything to do with the pain you’re having as a result of your accident” the massage therapist wondered. He was quietly thoughtful, and then tears came to his eyes. “Ohmigosh! I just heard some part of me say it serves me right to be in such pain because I had been such an asshole to my wife during that argument. I deserve to suffer.” They continued to talk about whether that was really true as the therapist continuing massaging the neck muscles, feeling them significantly relax as he was examining and letting go of those deeply held, previously unknown and unspoken beliefs. At the end of that session, the pain he’d lived with for years was almost completely gone, and over the next few sessions, it was completely alleviated. Let me be clear: massage therapists are not psychotherapists, but if you want to process emotions and memories around your physical pain, we’re good listeners and can ask some questions that might be of help to you as you try to heal from your pain. This is deeply holy work that leads to wholeness, and it is a sacred honor for me to be allowed into that part of your healing journey even as I’m working with the fascia here, the muscle attachment and movement there.
So take about 15-20 minutes to settle yourself into a comfortable quiet state. Think about where you experience your chronic pain. What thoughts, memories, and feelings come up around it? What might your body be trying to tell you about what hurts and how it needs attention for further healing? For example, thanks to the gentle questions of an excellent therapist, I had a breakthrough one day on a massage table when I walked my memory back to how an injury happened and what I did afterward: after stepping out of my apartment onto black ice, I went up in the air and landed on my bottom on the top stair of a whole flight of icy steel steps. After clacking down all fourteen steps on my tailbone, I sat at the bottom breathless. I assessed whether or not anything was broken. No. Ok, so I just got up and went on like nothing was wrong when clearly it was. This patterned way of being in the world—going on like nothing was wrong when it clearly was (I had probably broken my tailbone)--was something my body was telling me I needed to change because it pains me in myriad ways. As I began to make connections with how I continue that destructive behavior over the next few weeks, I healed, and my pain dissipated. It comes back from time to time because it is a physical injury, but when it gets bad is usually when I’m just getting up and going on instead of giving myself some time to rest and recreate.
In your imagination, you may talk to that part of your body that’s in chronic pain as if it were a person to see what it says to you about what it’s upset about and what it needs from you. Just let your imagination take you where it leads you, and be open to what it will tell you.
Don’t overthink this. If you start to get into scary territory that overwhelms you, imagine yourself putting the issue away in a box in your mind that you can open later. Then go do something fun. You might also want to call a psychologist to help you with this issue.
The way our nervous system responds to pain is unique to each of us because of our unique thoughts, feelings, and memories. The good news is that even if our past is traumatic, full of horrific memories and emotions, our thoughts can change our pain levels through the practice of mindfulness. This is what our next blog post will focus on.
Teresa Eisenlohr is a Christian theologian, Presbyterian pastor, and licensed massage therapist. And, no, that's not the start of a joke.