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Written by Tanner Murtagh MSW, RSW
Pain is terrifying. When we begin to experience pain the danger circuits in our brain become activated. However, if the pain persists and becomes chronic, we can begin to spiral into being in constant fear of it. A decade ago, when I was in chronic pain, the first thing I would do each morning was scan my body for pain. Like many others, I was preoccupied by my pain and would have the following fear-based thoughts everyday:
”Something serious must be wrong with my body that is causing me to be in pain.”
“I don’t think my pain is going to ever go away.”
“I think my pain is getting worse!”
“How am I going to live a fulfilling life when I am always in pain?”
“I’m never going to be able to exercise again.”
“How will I be able to work or have children when I am always in pain?”
Now these thoughts should make it clear that I was responding to my pain through a lens of danger. I viewed my pain with intensity, fear, and preoccupation. This is important to understand because how we respond to our pain matters.
Neuroplastic pain or Mind-Body Syndrome is when pain symptoms are not the result of structural damage, and are instead occurring due to learned neuropathways in the brain1,2. The brain misinterprets safe signals from the body as dangerous, and as a result, pain is produced. What causes the brain to misinterpret safe signals from the body? This depends on how much danger your brain thinks there is. Most people have one primary fear when in chronic pain: “There is something wrong with my body that is causing me to be in pain!” 1 And when the brain believes there is danger it will produce pain symptoms even in the absence of structural damage1,2.
Here is an extreme example of how the brain can misinterpret safe signals from the body and produce pain. A case of a construction worker was documented in the British Journal of Medicine1. The construction worker accidentally jumped on a nail and it pierced right through his boot. He was immediately in severe pain and rushed to the hospital. But when the boot was removed it was discovered the nail had gone right between his toes and caused no injury, not even a scratch! His brain had made a mistake and perceived danger where there was none. Safe signals were being sent from his body (texture of his sock and tightness of his boot), but his brain misinterpreted that there was danger and produced a lot of pain1.
People with neuroplastic pain experience pain for the same reason the construction worker did; because their brain misinterprets danger when there is none. We talk with clients about beginning to view their pain symptoms through a lens of safety instead of a lens of danger. As the fear of the pain reduces, so will their chronic pain. Becoming curious about the pain and watching it with an ease and lightness, allows us to begin reducing the fear of the pain. This is how clients can put an end to the pain-fear cycle and eliminate their pain.
Here are a Few Ways to Begin Viewing Your Pain Through a Lens of Safety:
Gather evidence that your pain is neuroplastic and not caused by structural damage. View the 12 criteria we utilize to assess clients for neuroplastic pain on our FAQ Page. By beginning to believe our pain is not structurally caused, the danger circuits in our brain become deactivated, which allows our brain to begin interpreting safe signals from the body accurately1,3.
Somatic Tracking. When the pain is mild to moderate, we support clients in using somatic tracking with the hopes of getting a corrective experience (where the fear of the pain reduces). Somatic tracking is a special type of exposure that supports clients in beginning to view their pain through a lens of safety (with a lightness and curiosity)1,3.
Self-compassion. People with neuroplastic pain have the common personality traits of perfectionism, anxious, people-pleasing, and conscientiousness1,2. These personality traits make them prone to self-criticism, worry, and placing pressure on themselves. We support clients in beginning to build a self-compassion practice, as it creates a sense of safety. Asking ourselves what we can do to feel safe while we are suffering, allows us to begin viewing our pain and life through a lens of safety.
I encourage everyone to consider if you are viewing your pain through a lens of danger, and try out some of the strategies outlined in this post. If you have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments section below. If you need support in overcoming neuroplastic pain, visit our contact page to book an initial consultation and begin your journey out of chronic pain.
Gordon, A., Ziv, A. (2021). The way out: A revolutionary, scientifically proven approach to healing chronic pain. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.
Clarke, D. D., & Schubiner, H. (2019). Introductions. In D. Clarke, H. Schubiner, M. Clarke-Smith, & A. Abbass (Eds.), Psychophysiologic disorders: Trauma informed, interprofessioal diagnosis and treatment (pp. 5-25). Psychophysiologic Disorders Association.
Pain Reprocessing Therapy Center (2021). Pain reprocessing therapy training.