How The Pain Cycle Is Created
Early childhood trauma, recurrent adult traumas and/or current stressors trigger a danger response in the brain’s amygdala. This activates our body’s fight or flight response via our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system triggers a rush of neurotransmitters in our brain and hormones in our body which prepare us to defend ourselves from the danger. We develop shortness of breath, a fast heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension. This system works perfectly for acute, time-limited danger, but when these traumas are ongoing or occur repeatedly over the course of one’s life, chronic activation can cause health problems. The chronic sympathetic nervous system activation, when combined with specific personality traits (which affect how you respond to the stress and the pressures you put yourself under), creates conditioned pain responses via learned neural pathways. The chronic pain leads to fear which causes heightened attention, and a vicious cycle ensues of more pain, more fear, more attention, more pain, etc. The original traumas are often associated with unresolved emotions which we would prefer not to feel – in fact, we will avoid feeling these feelings of anger, sadness, guilt or shame at all costs. But the emotions are still there in our subconscious, signaling danger and activating the sympathetic nervous system. This is all occurring at a subconscious level, and we have no more control over it than we do our dreams.
A mind-body treatment approach to pain views chronic, non-malignant pain as a dynamic process which can be unlearned. With appropriate treatment, we learn that our bodies are not broken which breaks the fear response, we unlearn our conditioned responses to the pain, we learn to respond to life’s stressors in healthier ways and we learn to attend to our internal states in ways that promote well-being. A different message is then sent to our brain – that we are safe, and the danger has passed. We are now in control of how stressors affect us, allowing our sympathetic nervous system to turn off.