Pain is a danger signal your nervous system uses to let you know your well-being is in trouble. These danger signals are beneficial in acute injuries because the pain keeps us alert of any surroundings, movements, etc. that could further damage the body. However, when it comes down to chronic pain, staying alert to symptoms for a prolonged time leads to an increased risk of unexplained pain, suffering, and mind-body symptoms like chronic back pain, migraines, IBS, pelvic pain, and so on.
The nervous system stores all the coping mechanisms used to overcome unpleasant events (including mental, physical, social, and emotional pain) so that we can better handle similar situations in the future.
However, some behavioral patterns learned from the past become inefficient and can lead to more suffering in the present. The learned protocols taken to protect acute injuries, like prohibiting movement, decreasing activity, and remaining hyper-vigilant to symptoms are counteractive in chronic pain cases.
With chronic pain, extreme focus and fear-avoidance behaviors increases sensitivity in the brain to sensations. The increased levels of sensitivity eventually hard wires the brain to identify neutral sensations as possibly dangerous, causing further pain and suffering.
Keep reading this blog to learn more about how hypervigilance affects chronic pain and what techniques you can use to reduce fear of symptoms to reclaim safety in the mind-body.
Acute Pain vs. Chronic Pain
According to this study, the brain processes mental and emotional pain in the same areas as physical pain. When the nervous system is stuck on overdrive to protect us from mental, emotional, and physical stress, it can become hypersensitive to all things that seem to impose danger.
For example, if the brain becomes hyper-vigilant to symptoms and learns avoidance behaviors to protect against an acute injury, this coping response is inefficient for chronic pain. The learned behavioral patterns of constant fear, hypersensitivity, and focus on chronic pain will cause the brain to work overtime and keep the nervous system in fight, flight, or freeze mode. This leads us to propound evidence that most chronic pain cases that involve fear of symptoms, a dysregulated nervous system, and a hyper-vigilant mind are categorized as neuroplastic pain.
Neuroplastic pain happens when the brain activates pain signals as a mistake due to exposure to heightened amounts of fear, stress, and unresolved trauma. Although the brain learns this type of pain, it is very real. When the brain is under high stress and becomes hypersensitive to triggers, it can mistake neutral, safe signals from the body as dangerous. The continuance of these mistakes and fear-based behaviors leads to the treacherous pain-fear cycle found in chronic pain syndrome, mind-body syndrome, or TMS.
Hypersensitivity and Hypervigilance to Chronic Pain Symptoms
Hypervigilance to chronic pain means that you are constantly searching for pain symptoms and have increased levels of fear towards discomforting sensations. Every thought, activity, emotion, or movement gives you a reason to overanalyze and scan your body for changes to your physical well-being. It is natural for many patients with chronic pain or mind-body symptoms to experience hypervigilance. Pain is scary and very inconvenient. If there is a way to prevent a big flare-up, many patients will make it their primary business to ensure they know precisely what to avoid to prevent increased suffering.
Being hypervigilant toward chronic pain may sound like a necessary pain management tool. However, by focusing on your sensations and becoming afraid of everyday activities that shouldn't indeed cause you structural damage, you are reaffirming and teaching the brain to activate a danger signal. Eventually, with enough concentration on symptoms, the brain forms new neural pathways to induct more pain, more fear to pain, mental and emotional distress. With high levels of fear towards chronic pain symptoms, eventually the nervous system will become triggered whenever thinking of or engaging in an activity that is believed to cause pain.
Hypervigilance teaches the neuroplastic mind to feel unsafe, react to sensations more fearfully, and therefore cause more intense and prolonged pain. It may sound like a treacherous never, ending cycle. However, there are simple ways to break the pattern and reverse mind-body symptoms like chronic pain. Continue reading to learn more about the signs of hypervigilance and how to change it.
Signs of a Hypervigilant Nervous System
A hypervigilant nervous system is a nervous system that is highly aware of and over anticipates danger, even from neutral safe sensations. Take these two comparing stories, for example:
Story 1: A walk in the park with a resilient nervous system:
You are walking in the park, enjoying the lovely sunny weather with a light breeze passing your face. As you walk, you notice the beautiful clouds, birds chirping, and a few butterflies flying around in the distance. You hear some of the tall grass to your right moving around, but you assume it might be a squirrel or lizard doing business. You take note of the noise and curiously turn your head towards the grass to see what will walk out. You see a tiny little cute squirrel come out with a nut stuffed in its mouth. You feel safe and are genuinely enjoying being present with nature. The squirrel pops back into the tall grass and runs up a tree. You go on your merry way.
Story 2: A walk in the park with a hypervigilant nervous system:
You are in the park. The day is sunny with a light breeze. You have slight back pain, but your doctor said that getting out in the sun, engaging in a joyous activity, and taking in some vitamin D will be helpful to your pain management journey, so you do it. You notice the birds chirping; at first, they get on your nerves, but then you remember that the sound of birds chirping is quite enjoyable. Butterflies fly around in the distance, and you begin to feel proud of yourself for taking a moment to walk outside. Suddenly, you hear the tall grass to your right, cuddling around and making noise. You immediately jump away. You immediately begin to worry, "What if it's a dog and it is so big it jumps on me, and I fall?" "What if it's a snake and I can't run away because of my back" "What if it's a squirrel and tries to attack me for the snack nuts I packed in my bag?". All of these thoughts could be true. But your initial thoughts of worry and catastrophizing cause the nervous system to feel more in danger, and your pain intensity rises. Now you wonder how bad the pain will get and regret ever going on this walk. You no longer feel present with the nature around you and conclude that you walked too far, and that is what caused your back to flare up.
How to Reverse Hypervigilance to Pain
To reverse hypervigilance, the best thing to do is reclaim safety in the mind-body one step at a time daily. Identifying the things that trigger your nervous system to feel unsafe may be the first step. Then analyzing if those triggers are valid or caused by an untrue limiting belief will help you to reshape your thoughts.
Once you reach a newfound level of acceptance about the connection between your mindset, emotional well-being, and physical state, you can move forward to rewiring the brain with actions. Ways to rewire the brain and reclaim safety in mind and body is through positive experiences. For example, simple meditations to calm the nervous system before reintroducing activities could be practical. An even better tool to safely reintroduce fear-avoidance behaviors is somatic tracking.
Somatic tracking allows you to imagine or perform the fear-avoidance behavior and observe your sensations through a safety lens. Reintroducing discomforting feelings with safety reappraisal and guidance teaches the brain that the senses it once thought were dangerous are neutral. Once a person overcomes the fear of sensations, the danger signal becomes neutral, and the nervous system becomes more resilient to negative thoughts, stress, pain, and anxiety.
If you deal with chronic pain syndrome, TMS, or mind-body symptoms, there is a way to reverse your symptoms! The frustrating pain-fear cycle may seem never-ending, but there are helpful tools to help you reclaim safety in your mind and body.
Somatic Tracking- Safely begin challenging your fears and limiting beliefs with guidance from an expert to reintroduce discomforting sensations with ease and positive affect induction.
Pain Coaching- Coach Amari is certified in Pain Reprocessing Therapy by Alan Gordon's Pain Psychology Center. Click here to learn more about our 10-session program and get started today!
Complimentary Consultation- Speak with an expert about your pain journey. Coach Amari will help you conclude which behavioral patterns and limiting beliefs are hindering your healing journey.
Free Guide- Click here to download our 3-Step Guide to Break the Chronic Pain Cycle. This is an introduction to the mind-body approach for all Chronic Pain Warriors. This guide helps you to identify hidden stressors and limiting beliefs and get you pointed in the right direction towards reintroducing activities you enjoy into your healing protocol.