The other day a woman looked at me and asked, “What if it is all in my head?” She was referring to the many years of pain she endured without clear cause or cure. I get asked this question all too often.
Doctors often fail to validate what people experience in favor of what can be analyzed, explained and proven. So as this woman looked at me, I explained to her my philosophy on the experience of pain. Pain, is in fact, in your head. For all of us. Each of us experiences sensation differently. It is experienced through the filter of genetics, emotions, personality, and lifestyle. We each bring our past into our present. Experience can sensitize our body to further and future intense pain.
Research supports that pain involves the mind and body. Pain is often a cycle of experience and emotional response to that experience. The response may be anger, stress or sadness. It is unique to the individual. This emotional experience intensifies the pain which in turn intensifies the emotions. We get stuck in a cycle that is difficult to break. To attack the sensation without addressing the experience leaves someone vulnerable to continued or return of pain.
Here are a few recommendations that can be made with respect to intervening on the emotional side of the equation:
1. Deep breathing. Inhale deeply, hold for a few seconds, and exhale. Very often choosing a word or chant can help. Breathe in saying calm, breathe out saying stress. The words you choose are up to you, but find meaning in them so that they guide you.
2. Relaxation response. While stress revs you up, relaxing calms you down. We can train our systems into the calm state. While it is hard to believe, relaxation can be learned. Close your eyes and let the tension of your muscles slip away. Focus on deep breathing. When thoughts break through, push them away, and return to the breathing repetition. Continue doing this for 10 to 20 minutes. Then, sit quietly for a few minutes, first with eyes closed and then with open. Let your thoughts return.
3. Meditation using imagery. Find something on which to focus, whether it be music or an image. Begin deep breathing, and let your mind focus in on the image. Should your thoughts wander, recall them to focus on the image and breathing.
4. Mindfulness. So many of us exist in a world of distraction. Mindfulness is about focus on any activity. Pick something you enjoy and allow yourself to experience it without distraction. Put down the iPhone or iPad. Lock your children out of the room. I’m kidding…sort of. Let your senses and emotions focus on the experience.
5. Yoga. Mind-body exercises incorporate breath control, meditation, and movements to stretch and strengthen muscles. While yoga is perhaps the best known, it is certainly not the only one and truthfully, any exercise can be made into a mind/body experience if you create the environment around the activity.
6. Positive thinking. Focus on what can be rather than what isn’t. Glass half full…or at least, not half empty. Move your mind away from catastrophic thinking or fear and toward what is possible.