Of course, I’m not saying everything is perfect now. But I’m definitely way better off than I was a few years ago, and a lot of that has to do with how I’ve changed my perspective on pain.
Two important ways in which my thinking changed:
1) Understanding that not all pain comes from a physical injury. This helps cut down on the cycle of fear.
We grow up thinking that pain must automatically mean we are injured. However, pain is actually a lot more complicated this, especially in the case of someone whose body has been through some sort of trauma.
(I have written a lot about this in past posts, so I am not going to focus on it as much in this one. But if you are new to my blog, definitely check out my page on “Calming Your Nervous System” for more!).
2) Learning as much as I can about the body.
The more I learn about the structure and function of the body, the more surprised I am at all the things doctors and other people don’t tell you.
The best thing you could possibly do is take a real, official anatomy and physiology class.
Don’t make the mistake that I did, when I was younger, in thinking that you can learn from just anywhere. Don’t just try to pick things up anecdotally from your acupuncturist or massage therapist, or even physical therapists. It’s just not the same. They might tell you what they think you need to know, but they are practitioners, not educators. I spent so much time in physical therapy over the years that I thought I knew a lot about the body, but once I took actual college courses in the subject, I realized how much there was that I didn’t know.
Start at the bottom; put in the time and pay your dues. Learn about the body from the cellular level up. Memorize the names of bones, the locations of muscles, learn the paths of the major nerves. It gives you a sense of mastery, and helps you feel more connected to your body (in a good way, not in a focusing-on-the-pain-more way).
The best part is, when you are caught in a cycle of chronic pain, when your body’s “alarm bells” seem to be constantly ringing, knowing more about the body can help you turn down the signal.
Pain is a dynamic interplay between the body and the brain. The body can send signals up to the brain, to determine if action needs to be taken. The brain can also send signals down to the body asking for more information, if it wonders if the body has been hurt.
When you have a chronic condition, knowing more about your own anatomy can help turn down some of those alarm bells when they start ringing.
Here is an example from my own life:
A few years ago, when I first began to have knee issues, there was one night where I experienced extreme, stabbing pain in one leg. The pain didn’t make any sense to me—it ran in a diagonal line from the outside of my upper thigh, across my leg, to the inside of my knee.
At the time it really freaked me out. I had no idea what could cause pain to run in such a diagonal pattern. Since it wasn’t a muscle, I thought, it must be some kind of serious problem involving a nerve. Maybe it was even a pinched nerve in my lower back. I burst into tears, took a ton of Advil, and waited desperately for my next physical therapy appointment.
Well, it turned out that there is muscle that runs diagonally across the knee, along the exact same path that the pain ran that night.
I was simply experiencing a spasm of the sartorius muscle, which runs from the outer thigh to the inner knee.
If I had known this at the time, I probably would have been able to avoid freaking out so much.
Just because the pain is severe, it doesn’t necessarily mean the condition is severe.
A muscle spasm like that one can be extremely painful, but it isn’t really “dangerous.” It’s just a sign that the muscle is overworked and you need to rest it, ice/heat it, and get a massage.
I know that now, and I’ve definitely had muscle spasms since then. But none of them have set off the same pain “alarm” bells, and I’m sure that part of that is because, on some level, my body has made peace with the idea of muscles being overworked and needing to rest. I’m not talking about a conscious process. It’s something that probably happens below the level of conscious thought.
Of course, my life isn’t perfect now. I still have some physical issues (specifically, my ongoing saga with the sacroiliac joint).
But I just don’t seem to have the same overblown, five-alarm-fire response to pain that I used to have. I think my physical issues are probably worse now, in an objective sense, thanks to the sacroiliac issues that I’ve had for the past two years.
But I am actually in less pain than I was a few years ago, where I went from doctor to doctor, only to be told that nothing was wrong, and it’s largely because I helped to calm my nervous system down.
A calmer nervous system
It’s not that I’ve learned to block out pain, or anything crazy like that. I’m not saying I have no pain. I’m just saying that now, I have the pain response of a normal person (or close to it) rather than the extreme, overblown pain response of a few years ago.
It’s not that I had a problem with anxiety, as so many doctors were wont to think. It’s that my nervous system was giving me a lot of very “loud” input, and I didn’t have any way of determining which signals might be okay to “tune out.”
There’s a big difference between trying to ignore pain that you think could be a sign of something dangerous happening in your body, and deciding in a calm, rational manner that you are pretty sure you know what’s causing the pain, and that it is not a sign of immediate danger.
The first of those options will only make the pain louder. Pain is there to protect you and get you to change your course of action when your nervous system thinks you might be in trouble. Trying to push through the pain and going about your business as usual will only make the pain worse.
But pausing and actually focusing on the pain, deciding you have a reasonable guess as to what’s causing it, and what to do to make it better, can make the pain go quiet. Or, at least, quieter. But you have to really believe that you are safe, for this to work. You can’t think there might be some hidden cause your doctors have missed, that part of your body might be falling apart.
And it’s ok if that’s what you do think. It is certainly a valid position to be in. Sometimes there is no simple answer. I am not telling you you should be able to use the thought process I’m describing here all the time, or implying that there’s something “wrong” with you if you can’t talk yourself out of being scared. That is the exact opposite of what I’m saying.
I’m just telling you that, the more you know about the body in an objective sense, the easier it will be for you to make sense out of it when the body gives you subjective input. In my own life, the more I learned about anatomy and physiology, the less scary pain became to me, which in turn meant there were fewer alarm bells going off.
It isn’t the answer to everything, but learning about these subjects might be the answer to some things.