This added knowledge can allow you to sit with pain more calmly.
All felt pain has physical and psychological components. Sensory and emotional signals are sent up and down the body/brain systems. Suffering and agony are fear related to pain. They are intrinsic to pain.
Fear, in a deep body/brain sense, is a requirement. It manifests as muscle guarding which tenses the muscle areas surrounding the pain. This increased tension can cause more mechanical pain, leading to more muscle guarding, and more pain. I will explain pain in the brain/body, its relationship to involuntary contraction of muscle and what to do about it to suffer less.
First, let me clarify the basic working components of the nervous system. I have found my clients need this information in order to understand depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior, medicines, anger as well as pain. You will know how to deal with depression and pain once you understand it.
Nerves have three different types of dendrite receptors: mechanical, thermal and chemical. The brain interprets pain signals. Psychological processes have physical effects. Physical processes have psychological effects. There is no separation between psychological and biological.
The cell wall of a neuron is built of proteins, large molecules, their shape and contents determine the character and function of each protein. The outfacing side of the long cell wall protein can be thought of as a key hole. Neurotransmitters are the keys that fit in these locks.
Overly simplified, when a neurotransmitter (key) lodges in these proteins (keyhole) they bond, changing the electrical potential of the whole cell a tiny bit. The nerve cell generally sits at -70 millivolts, when it reaches -40 millivolts it triggers the cell wall proteins to flip over drawing the neurotransmitters (key) inside and releasing them, bring the cell to +30 millivolts.
Neurotransmitters (keys) are then discharged out of the axon end of the nerve, into the synapse between that axon and the dendrite (keyhole) of the next cell. They diffuse into the area where the dendrite end of the next nerve has many receptor sites for them. The more this relationship operates, the more receptor sites are built. Those two nerves are now wired together.
The protein’s flipping is caused by the electrical process, (actual Sodium=Na and Potassium=K, negatively charged (-) chemicals are pushed out while Chloride=Cl, positively charged (+) is drawn in. It is the transfer of electrons that we call electricity.
The more a pathway in the nervous system is used the more it becomes resupplied with the necessary chemicals for it to operate. Blood veins, arteries and the muscles that surround them are strengthened and developed. It gets easier and easier to use that pathway. This is part of the way chronic pain gets habituated in the body/brain.
As a pain sensation is felt, it sends a signal of the pain to the spinal column. As the signal arrives, the spinal column quickly makes available more receptor sites for noticing that pain. The surrounding neural dendrites are quickly tuned to receive the same pain signal. Therefore, the signal is amplified, literally increasing the strength of the pain signal.
The brain can also send signals back down the spinal column to interfere with the use of some of the receptor sites or add more. After the spinal column has magnified the pain signal, it heads up to the brain. There the signal goes through an amazing and complex matrix of receiving areas.
The following brain areas are some of important functions in the way we experience pain:
One of the first and most powerful matrixes for pain identification is located in the amygdala. It is a horseshoe shape group of nerves about as big as the tip of your thumb. The amygdala/hippocampus can decide to pass the signal on up to more complex areas for evaluation, or the amygdala can take over if it is determined the signal is life-threatening.
If it feels life threatening, all of the smooth muscles around each blood vein and artery throughout the body/brain contract to force all the blood to centralize near the heart for rapid use where need. This creates a lot more tension throughout the body.
At the same time, in 40-60 milliseconds, directions are sent to the heart to speed up, lungs to work faster using only the top parts of the lungs that are closer to the heart, the stomach and other organs to shut off, the adrenal gland to secrete adrenaline, and many other systems to activate or shut down.
If a person has an exaggerated sense of endangerment due to life threatening experiences in their past, the amygdala/hippocampus has a habit of taking over. So, when the body sends a signal that is similar to the signal sent during an earlier life-threatening event it is more likely an extreme fear response will be initiated, developing more pain.
This is a strip of brain tissue on both sides of the brain about the width of your index finger. It processes our body sensations. How pain is felt depends on how cells in these strips are organized. Every part of our body has an area represented on the brain’s sensory strip. It is a mini version of our body mapped onto our brain.
The size of the space dedicated for different body parts is related to that area’s degree of sensitivity. Therefore the mouth, face, finger, genitals and feet are related to much bigger areas than their physical size.
This increased sensitivity allows us to feel two toothpicks pressed on our fingertip a quarter of an inch apart, and it will feel like one toothpick on our backs. These areas can all get bigger or smaller depending on use.
If you have chronic pain in your right elbow, the space related to it in the sensory strip enlarges and becomes more sensitive. (In recovery from suffering from pain the reverse of this process will be utilized. Relaxation techniques, breathing practices, exercise, visualization, etc…In effective therapy, the client learns many systems to focus on the non-painful areas of their life.)
Sitting With The Right Amount Of Pain
So, how can you learn your unique complications with pain?
I have never explained all of these concepts to any one client. Many of them knew more than I did about some the pain related processes in their body/brain. We needed to work as a team to get to know the complexities of their pain. In a sense, I am a knowledgeable person they are bouncing their plans off of.
My job with chronic pain sufferers is similar to how I treat depression and anxiety. The client needs to learn to relax in many layers of their organization of themselves.
Psychological tension will be at its most painful around feelings of inadequacy and shame, which developed in their early childhood. These psychological defense processes are universal; however, some are more problematic than others.
Any self-talk about embarrassment will create the maximum psychological pain. If your strategies for coping with pain are similar to how you dealt with the deficits in your family-of-origin, you need to soften those ideas.
Are you really that bad of a person? These defensive strategies invariably make pain worse in the long run.
Your job is to become familiar with what ideas about your pain help you and what ideas hurt you in the long run.
Pain Is Real. We Want To Be Realistic About Its Effects.
The problem and solution with chronic pain is neural plasticity - nerves being able to add new connections to other nerves. Neural plasticity leads to ever greater intensity, frequency and duration of suffering or ever greater ability to down-regulate pain.
Patterns and processes that have grown to exaggerate pain can be allowed to atrophy by growing new more dynamic connections in harmonious, realistic honoring of the pain you feel.
Bill Maier is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, OR. Chapters of his forthcoming book on therapy for illuminating your shame and utilizing your Shadow are currently appearing on his website: https://sites.google.com/site/billmaiermswpdx/home.
He can be reached for further information by email or telephone.