Did you know that every time we feel pain it is accompanied by the stress response? "The stress response" refers to a group of physical changes that happen in our bodies that help to keep us safe when there is a threat or potential threat. Read on to find out more about the importance of the stress response in changing pain.
Photo by Wojtek Paczes
Imagine that you are hiking in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains when you encounter a mother brown bear and her cubs just a few yards away.
A minute ago you felt a hunger pang and were thinking about stopping for lunch, but you've totally forgotten about that now. Instead, you've become hyper-aware of every sound around you. Every time anything moves, your eyes dart around, searching for the possibility that there are more bears in the vicinity. You feel your heart pounding in your chest and your breathing has gotten faster. Your hands start to sweat and you feel adrenaline coursing through your veins as you decide what you're going to do to get out of this situation.
When we have pain, our bodies respond in a similar way. Thankfully, we can control some aspects of our bodily response, which means we can influence our pain response.
The changes that occur in the body during a stressful event like encountering bears in the wild are known as the fight-or-flight response and are governed by the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system takes care of the functioning of the body on a largely unconscious level. It is responsible for our digestion, breathing, and the functioning of all our organs. The autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is considered the fight-or-flight system, while the parasympathetic is considered the rest-and-digest system. In many ways, these two systems act as opposites: SYMPATHETIC: - Dilates pupils - Inhibits salivation - Relaxes bronchi - Increases heart rate - Inhibits digestion - Stimulates glucose release by liver - Stimulates epinephrine and norepinephrine release - Relaxes bladder PARASYMPATHETIC: - Constricts pupils - Stimulates salivation - Constricts bronchi - Decreases heart rate - Stimulates digestive activity - Stimulates gall bladder - Inhibits adrenaline production - Contracts bladder The purpose of the sympathetic fight-or-flight response is to mobilize us for action to get through an emergency situation. Bodily processes that allow for physical movement, such as muscle tone and releasing sugar and oxygen into the blood, are prioritized and the senses are heightened to aid in alertness and responsiveness. Meanwhile, processes that are not essential to getting out of immediate danger, such as digestion, are deprioritized. The fight-or-flight response is activated not only when our brains perceive danger, but when we feel pain. In this way the nervous system keeps us safe, but it is only meant to be used in the short term. When we have chronic pain, it is an indication that our sympathetic nervous systems have become overly sensitive and are activated more easily. Extra-sensitive nervous systems send more and more danger signals to the brain, which leads to more pain, regardless of the state of the bodily tissues. More pain triggers the sympathetic nervous system again, and it becomes a vicious cycle. If the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated when our brains perceive danger, then the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated when our brains perceive calm and safety. Proper parasympathetic engagement is necessary for good digestion and good sleep; it's what helps us recover from stressful events. When we have chronic pain, our nervous systems have gotten very good at activating the fight-or-flight response, but have become less adept at activating the rest-and-digest response at the appropriate times. Fortunately, we have the power to change that. Though the autonomic nervous system nearly always functions on an subconscious level, we are able to consciously practice activating the parasympathetic nervous system. When we do this, we build a greater sense of safety in our bodies, sending messages to the brain that it can relax and not be so hypervigilant. The more we practice activating it, the more readily accessible the rest-and-digest response becomes, the more balance is restored to the nervous system, the less pain we feel. One of the simplest ways to cultivate a felt sense of safety in the body is through the breath. Slow deep breathing causes the heart to beat more slowly, signaling to the nervous system a rest-and-digest state. Today's video practice guides you through a breath practice to take you there, and today's worksheet gives you more methods for teaching your nervous system to relax.
Now it's your turn. Feel for yourself what it's like to change your body's stress responses by following along with Pain Care Collective Co-Founder Rachel as she leads you through a breath technique called Longer, Smoother, Softer.
Flesh out your learning and understanding with this worksheet, which guides you in considering how the practice affected you and gives you a framework for building resilience in movement.