In the last lesson, we learned about the relationship between danger (or perceived danger) and pain via the physical stress response. Today we'll explore how our thoughts and beliefs relate to danger, and therefore our pain experience.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
Two preschool teachers in their 40s decide to spend the weekend mountain biking together. Michelle has been mountain biking since she was a teenager, and Rachel is a novice mountain biker who has recently committed to trying things outside her comfort zone.
Michelle decides to take Rachel on a trail she's ridden many times over the years; it's the trail she used to teach all three of her children to mountain bike. On a rough patch of the trail, Rachel hits a rock and goes flying over her handle bars, crashing to the ground. As Michelle watches her friend, she also hits a rock and goes flying over her handle bars. Michelle immediately gets up and goes to Rachel, who remains on the ground, moaning and writhing with pain. An onlooker may wonder why Rachel would be in so much more pain when the two women suffered the exact same injury, and it may be tempting to dismiss her as overly dramatic.
But what an onlooker cannot see is the difference in the thoughts and beliefs each rider brought into the ride that day, and what an onlooker may not know is that these thoughts and beliefs can literally affect the amount of pain felt. Michelle is confident in her ability to mountain bike, she's familiar with the trails around here and believes that the trail they were riding that day was among the least treacherous rides in the area. She's fallen off her bike many times and knows that most falls leave only scrapes and bruises. But she knew her friend was nervous and felt responsible for making the ride a success. When the accident happened, her only thought was, "Is my friend ok?" Rachel has always considered herself to be "not good at sports". The thoughts running through her mind during the ride were: "My husband doesn't think I should be doing this...maybe he's right." "I am getting older, my balance isn't as good as it used to be, and if I get hurt, it could take me a long time to heal." "If I get hurt, will I still be able to lift the children in my preschool class?" Whose brain do you think had a greater sense of danger? As we learned yesterday, the more of a threat the brain perceives, the greater the pain will be. In Rachel's case we see that a sense of danger can be heightened, not just by the prospect of bodily injury, but by the prospective consequences of injury. The possibility of becoming unable to perform the functions of her job caused Rachel's brain to evaluate the situation as even more dangerous. Michelle, on the other hand, didn't immediately feel any pain from her fall. The nerves in her body still sent danger signals to her brain when she fell, but fewer of those signals were paid attention to because her brain determined that her friend's wellbeing was more important in that moment. Several minutes after the accident, Rachel examined her wounds and realized, "It's just a small cut. And I'll definitely have a few bruises, but it's really not too bad." With the visual information of what the injury looked like and her conclusion that it wasn't serious, Rachel's brain re-evaluated the danger level and her pain began to subside. Our thoughts and beliefs are influenced by many sources: what friends and family have told us, the articles we've read, our past experiences, cultural expectations and norms. As we see in our mountain biking example, our thoughts and beliefs can make us feel less safe OR more safe. One way we can use our minds to change our pain is to replace thought patterns that reinforce our fears with thought patterns that are more helpful to us and reinforce our sense of safety. You can practice this right now with our video practice of movement + mantra. And don't forget the worksheet that will guide you in identifying specific situations that make you feel unsafe, the thoughts and beliefs that accompany them, and what thoughts would serve you better.
Changing thought patterns and beliefs takes time, but you can start practicing right now with this movement and mantra practice, led by Pain Care Collective Co-Founder Diane.