The Trauma of Chronic Pain

What is Chronic, Physical Pain?

Chronic pain is a sensory experience that lasts longer than 6 months. More than 100 million people have chronic pain. It is a staggering number.  When pain signals chronically over-fire, neural pathways are established that remain intact long after a body has healed from an injury. Pain becomes a pattern, or a habit, of the brain even if the injury has healed.

Our Mind and Body Act As One–They Are a Unit

Habitual pain signals, emotions of fear of pain, anger, anxiety, helplessness, avoidance behaviors, our thoughts, beliefs, life stressors, unresolved trauma held in our body, muscle tension that keep us braced (such as in our neck and back) in a protective response, the hyper-arousal of our nervous system can all be interpreted by the brain as dangerous, unconsciously locking us in a feedback loop, creating a pain cycle. Gradually our nervous system becomes chronically overstimulated and hypersensitive. The smallest touch, sound, sensation, or memory can be linked to feeling pain. Or we develop wide-spread physical pain or increased food sensitivities and digestive problems. 

Chronic Pain is Trauma

Dr. Peter Levine, a psychologist who developed a body-oriented psychotherapy called Somatic Experiencing from his work with people with stress, trauma, and pain. He states that, “Trauma is any experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope.” Chronic pain affects us on all levels, leaving us to feel helpless, and fearful. Pain in and of itself is traumatizing. Just as people who experience trauma go into a state of fight, flight, or freeze and get stuck there, so can people who experience physical pain.

Chronic pain can also be caused or intensified by other past traumas, whether from childhood trauma, abuse, or a recent event such as a car accident or medical procedure. The latter can lead to complex medical trauma and PTSD, which is often not diagnosed or discussed, leaving a person to figure out on his or her own how to cope with a hyper-aroused nervous system and the emotional pain that comes with physical pain.

According to Levine, trauma happens in the body and therefore, treatment needs to focus on releasing trauma from the body in a safe way, without having to relive the traumatic event/s.

Often people in pain try to mentally and/or physically fight against or “flee” from pain because pain feels like a controlling enemy and the body feels like a scary and uncomfortable place to be. These normal coping mechanisms decrease body awareness and lead to us feeling more victimized. Learning techniques to psychologically reconnect and anchor oneself within the body can lead to an increased psychological sense of wholeness, control, empowerment, inner and outer strength, and appreciation for our self and our body. This creates a psychological state of a rebalanced nervous system and an increased sense of well-being.

Journey Back From Pain
– By Learning to Modulate Your Pain –

Chronic pain, painful or frightening medical procedures, and our experience of pain are all in and of themselves traumatizing, affecting every aspect of a person–physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Physical pain can often lead us to bracing ourselves as a protective mechanism, and then we become stiff with muscle tension and fear movement. Layers of emotional pain develop – fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, grief, and a lost sense of self.  Emotions, thoughts, beliefs, lifestyle, psychosocial factors, spiritual wellness, and environmental factors are all stimuli that can increase or decrease pain. Anger and fear can increase pain. Joy can decrease pain.

With loving kindness to ourselves, we can learn to teach our system how to calm itself and feel safe so that it turns down the pain levels!

person in front of ocean arms stretched out

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