Q: Do you have any tips for rewiring around chronic pain and inflammation?
A: Firstly, it is important to understand what happens in the brain when we experience chronic pain. Because our brain is plastic and changeable, over time as pain signals are continually fired, not only do we end up with bigger areas that process pain but we also end up with more areas of the brain becoming involved in the processing of pain. If you look at a functional MRI of someone with chronic pain and someone without, you will see a lot more parts of the brain lit up by the experience of pain. It is crucial to understand this because it helps us to really get that the pain we experience is generated in the brain and perpetuated by the nervous system. Even in circumstances that were triggered by an initial injury, very rarely is chronic pain actually generated from the body. I had the privilege of attending the Resolving Chronic Pain Summit in January of this year, put on by medical doctors, surgeons, neurologists, chiropractors & psychologists, and the underlying message in this summit was clear: resolving pain is about changing the brain & nervous system, primarily through increasing patient understanding about their experiences and giving them tools for rewiring.
We need to hold onto this understanding while we retrain the brain. This means that it is okay to step out of your comfort zone and push a little bit into activities that create the sensation of pain, paired with doing rounds of practice or elevating your emotional state. Doing so repeatedly helps to signal the brain that these activities are not a threat to us and the brain learns to stop sending the pain signals. With consistent practice over time, those extra areas of the brain that have come online to send pain signals start to prune away and we go back to the original pain processing mechanisms.
It helps to have an activity or a few activities that you really enjoy and that provide a good distraction as a starting point. I had one coaching client who had a younger family member come to visit, so they played a little bit of pickle ball every day. At first it was difficult and the pain flared up, but having the opportunity to engage in a fun way with a family member provided both a good distraction and good motivation to keep doing it. As the days progressed, it became easier and easier. Her brain learned that this activity was not only non-threatening but could actually be associated with a lot of fun, connection, and enjoyment!
Elevated emotions are key in rewiring pain and decreasing inflammation. When we elevate our emotions, we release the neurochemistry that blocks the receptor sites for the inflammatory response, and therefore our inflammation levels go down. Aim for elevated emotions are frequently and as intensely as you can throughout your days, and remember that anything along the positive emotional spectrum counts as an elevated emotion. You could feel love, gratitude, contentment, connection, awe, wonder, excitement, inspiration, compassion, kindness, creativity, bliss. You could be silly, engage in fun activities you used to do when you were young (or maybe you did with your children when they were young), help someone, watch or listen to something funny, or use all your senses to really engage in the present moment. The possibilities are quite open ended.
Sometimes accessing the elevated emotions can be a big challenge when we are feeling a lot of pain. It is really easy to get stuck in a trap of negativity in those moments, especially when our experience is intense. Show yourself some kindness and self compassion in these moments. Then remind yourself that what you are experiencing is because of false messages from your brain (it's not actually your back or neck, etc.), and practice thinking greater than how you feel. Look at what else you can give your attention and energy to, both while engaging in activities and afterwards if there is an increase in symptoms. Don't waste energy fighting to make the pain signals go away or trying to change your experience. Instead focus on what you want to grow and build. Changes will happen automatically as we repeatedly shift our emotional state and stay the course with brain retraining.
Until next time!
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Candy Widdifield is Registered Clinical Counsellor, Wellness Coach, and Registered Reiki Master Teacher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. Her modalities include coaching, therapy, Reiki and the Safe & Sound Protocol. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com