Updated: Aug 15, 2022
When pain becomes chronic, it is a sign that the nervous system has become hyper-vigilant and dysregulated. Sometimes chronic pain is caused by tissue damage from an injury or disease. However, more commonly chronic pain occurs when neural pathways accidentally learn to activate pain signals.
This accident occurs when the nervous system is on high alert for an extended time, feeling at risk of dangers (like stress, anxiety, unresolved trauma, or life-changing events). Once these neural pathways begin detecting neural signals from the body as dangerous, fear-based behavioral patterns are developed of magnified and finally birth neuroplastic pain.
Keep reading this blog to learn more about how the chronic pain cycle develops and get three tips that will teach you how to break free of it.
How does chronic pain start?
Chronic pain is a complex diagnosis. According to psychologist and founder of the Pain Psychology Center, chronic pain can begin in three ways:
1) gradual onset of pain
2) unexpected onset of pain
3)chronic pain after an injury
Other factors that put people at risk of chronic pain and mind-body syndrome are stressful lifestyles, big life-changing events, unresolved childhood trauma, or several small stressful occasions that build up in one's life. Regardless of the nature of one's life at the time the pain occurred, all explanations point to a fearful, dysregulated nervous system.
Another significant factor in how chronic pain begins is the behavioral response to pain. Were you afraid of the physical sensation initially? Did you continue to worry about the pain and if it would worsen in return? Did you become hyper-vigilant about the symptoms, taking note of the quality of sensation, how long it lasted, and how badly it would affect other areas in your life if it continued to be prevalent? These thought patterns and fear-based behaviors make the hyper-sensitive nervous system more confused and more aware of the sensations. The continuance of these thoughts leads to neural pathways learning to decipher neutral sensations as dangerous. This, unfortunately begins the viscous pain-fear cycle, also known as the chronic pain cycle.
What is the chronic pain cycle?
As mentioned earlier in this blog, chronic pain is developed most commonly due to stress, trauma, and repressed emotions. A nervous system threatened for long periods without acknowledgment and reprocessing will continue to become more and more sensitive to sensations- even if these sensations are neutral and safe. When dealing with stress-induced pain, fear-based behaviors and triggers make symptoms worsen.
Chronic symptoms can lead to the development of fear and avoidance behaviors. Which, unfortunately, reinforces the prevalence of danger in the body and brain. Looking at the image above, fear-based emotional responses to pain like frustration, fear, despair, and overwhelm, trigger the nervous system to sense your well-being is in danger and will recruit more pain.
A pain signal will trigger fearful thoughts about symptoms, which then causes the brain to focus more on the symptoms, leading to avoidance behaviors like decreased movement and socializing, and finally reinforces danger, causing more pain.
How to break the chronic pain cycle
The key to breaking the chronic pain cycle is to overcome the fear associated with the sensations. You may wonder, "If fear and stress cause the intial neuroplastic pain, and fear of symptoms promote more pain, how can one break the cycle?"
We now know that when a person is dealing with neuroplastic pain, it is a sign that the nervous system detects danger and mistakenly causes physical pain. If you respond to neutral sensations with fear, you hard wire the brain to reinforce the danger signal.
Any reaction to a neutral sensation that will cause the chronic pain cycle to continue are the following:
By understanding the emotional responses that trigger more pain, you can practice changing your behavioral patterns to reclaim safety in the mind and body. Keep reading to learn three essential tips to begin rewiring the brain.
Tip 1: Identify your triggers to fear-based behaviors
Begin by getting into the habit of regularly identifying your internal state throughout your day. There are no particular amount of times to do this. The purpose of this exercise is to practice observing yourself and your sensations with ease and curiosity, without pressure.
Then, casually reflect on how certain people, things, places, conversations, and so on make you feel. You can then go a step further and practice taking small pauses throughout your day to collect self-data. Take note of the thoughts that pass by, what emotions you feel, and how these emotions or thoughts show up in your body physically.
Notice if any of these feelings, thoughts, events, etc make you feel safer or more fearful. When you can take inventory of these things over a few days, you will have evidence of what things make you feel safe or triggered.
By getting into the practice of observing your internal state, you are strengthening the mind-body connection and forming new neural pathways of safety.
Tip 2: Soothe the Nervous System
If you experienced positive sensations while taking inventory of your internal state, continue to celebrate and reaffirm your safety by doing an activity you enjoy. It can be an activity as simple as listening to music, taking a walk outside, or calling a friend.
If negative sensations such as pain, anxiety, or any other uncomfortable thought or emotion occured while tracking your sensations, then get proactive. Instead of spiraling and reaffirming the danger, you can practice short mindfulness techniques like breath work, somatic tracking, and journaling.
Responding to uncomfortable sensations with self-acknowledgment and soothing puts you in more control of your life and the circumstances you experience. This practice will help you widen your window of tolerance and boost your resilience against stress, anxiety, and physical sensations over time.
Tip 3: Restore safety in your life
Chronic pain is fuelled by fear and fear-related thoughts and behaviors. Since you cnow have the tools to address your triggers and reclaim safety in the nervous system, focus on creating positive experiences in your external environments. External environments like work, home, and social environments can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety. Think of small steps you can take to begin improving the quality of your life, so you have more room for joy in your days.
Want step-by-step guidance to incorporate these tips into your healing routine? Download my free guide, 3 Steps to Break the Chronic Pain Cycle. In this guide, you will receive pain science-made-easy, mind-body techniques, and self-coaching exercises to help you identify your triggers, soothe the nervous system, and rewire the brain.
If you enjoy learning via webinars instead of workbooks, click here to watch my most recent webinar, "How to Overcome Fear" on my Instagram @bodyamorwellness.