Let's start this series by busting the biggest myth surrounding pain: that pain is a purely physical phenomenon.
The cause of chronic pain can be difficult to pinpoint, but even when pain seems to be the direct result of a physical injury, there is more at play than the muscles, ligaments, and other bodily tissues. Read on to find out where pain actually comes from and why we get it.
Photo by Ba Tik.
For much of the (relatively) recent history of Western science, human health and wellbeing were thought of in this way (Figure 1).
In this model, human health was considered to have several separate components. If a person had emotional pain, it was considered to be a strictly mental problem. If a person had physical pain, it was considered to be a strictly physical problem.
Thankfully, over time science began to prove what we know from our own experiences: people, and pain, are not so simple as that. Pain is complex. In the 1970s, a new model of health and well-being was introduced: the biopsychosocial model (Figure 2). This model asserts that human beings are more than the sum of their parts; instead, our different facets are integrated together, each influencing the others.
This model works not only for our general well-being, but also for our experience of pain. Modern pain science tells us that pain is neither a mere "issue of the tissues", nor is it "all in our heads", even if there is no apparent damage to the bodily tissues. This is because pain does not originate in our muscles and joints, and it doesn't come from our anxieties-- it is a product of our brains. The brain uses pain as a method of protecting us: it tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, it tells us that a poisonous snake bite needs to be addressed quickly, and it tells us to rest so that our broken leg has the opportunity to heal. The brain takes information from many different sources-- the danger signals coming from the body's nerves, our memories about similar situations in the past, our beliefs about the current situation --it takes all this information and assesses whether or not you are in danger and need protecting. If your brain decides yes, you are in danger, then it will cause you to have pain, whether that danger is real or only perceived. In case you need any more convincing that pain is complex and not a straightforward indication of injury, consider these situations: - With phantom limb pain, a person feels pain in a part of the body they no longer have - One report found that paper cuts hurt more at work than at home - Some people with herniated discs have back pain, some don't - A soldier in a battle may not realize he has a severe injury until he has escaped to safety Furthermore, evidence has shown that simply learning about how pain works can have a positive effect on the pain experience. Building awareness is the first step in effecting change, so the first guided practice we have for you is for body awareness, and the first worksheet we have for you is identifying what triggers your pain and what soothes it.
When pain is persistent, it's common to find some level of disconnect between ourselves and our bodies. Try strengthening the connection between body and mind with Co-Founder Michelle as she leads a body-awareness practice. The more often we are aware of our bodies, the stronger the mind-body connection grows, the more capacity we have to change our bodily experience.
Now we invite you round out your exploration by reflecting on how building awareness around pain applies to your actual life. What does your pain respond to, and does it ever behave in unexpected ways? Click on the button to the right to download a worksheet that will help guide you through this thought process.