With regards to the brain: “All it has at its disposal is your past experience, the past experience it has wired into itself” A great quote from Lisa Feldman Barrett on how the brain works to make decisions throughout our day to day life (Interview here!)
But what does this mean for people where pain persists past normal healing time and is becoming chronic? How do your past experiences shape your current pain experience?
What Happened Before?
The brain is a phenomenal structure that drives everything we do. It receives an outstanding amount of information from your entire body in a fraction of a second, analyzes it at a ridiculous speed, tells us what action to do or not to do, and then briefly stores everything that just happened for possible future use. Beyond the fact that this happens without us even knowing, the fascinating thing is that if it keeps receiving the same information over and over, it becomes so fast and so great at analyzing the sequence, it typically has pinpoint accuracy in predicting what to do next. This is great when we are taking our next step while walking, or go to fall and are able to catch ourselves, but not so much when we are talking about pain sensitivity. So if you have been experiencing pain for a significant period of time, a major component can be that your brain is predicting things to be painful based on what’s happened previously (The Predictive Brain article here!).
The prediction of danger is a genius protective mechanism during the initial stages of healing when things need to be protected, but not so much when things are healed and life needs to return to normal. So once the danger is no longer present (i.e.,muscle/ligament is healed, cast is off etc…), thank your brain for trying to protect you, but start letting it know that it’s no longer necessary. The major question is how do you go about that? Here are a few tips: 1) Know that movement is safe and needed for healing. 2 )Pain is not a direct measure of tissue damage. 3) Keep moving within your limits. Somatic exercises can be a great place to start (Youtube One to One Wellness). Finding your limits can be difficult so seeking professional help is strongly encouraged. 4) Start loading. Our brain needs to understand that this area is capable of going under stress, and that it is safe to do so. Star with low intensity and go slowly to build up tolerance and confidence. 5)Have recovery time and sleep. Your brain and body need time to adapt to these increases in demand and it can only do so if you are getting adequate breaks and a good night’s sleep. 6) Take a look at what you are eating. There is truth to the old saying “you are what you eat”.
The changes will not happen overnight but when you provide new, SAFE experiences to help re-wire the predictive nature from danger to safety, we can change for the better.
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a neuroscientist, psychologist and author who researches how the brain constructs emotion.