Thanks to large libraries of functional images and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans that show what happens in the brain when a patient experiences physical pain, we know that the brain can send signals to the body that then produce pain. We also know that the brain can take pain away.
Research has also shown that emotions such as fear and anxiety can increase pain. Negative emotions may also turn short-term pain into a chronic condition.
One Dutch study on how negative emotions affect pain involved 121 women: 62 had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that involves chronic pain, and 59 did not have the disease.
Using an electrical stimulus, pain was induced in two separate circumstances: while the women recalled an emotionally neutral event and as they remembered an event that made them feel sad and/or angry. Higher levels of pain were consistently felt when the women were recalling memories that made them feel sad and/or angry.
In a separate randomized controlled trial with more than 150 patients, those who were given cognitive behavioral therapy that allowed them to express their emotions experienced less pain, fatigue, and functional disability than those who were put on a waiting list did. So how do emotions interact with pain in the body?
There are many different ways the brain and body can create, increase, and prolong pain. In some cases, a physical event, like picking up something heavy and hurting your back, is what initially triggers pain.
In that case, nearly everyone experiences pain immediately, or very soon after the injury occurs. Immediately after, the brain’s networks and neurons begin to rewire in an effort to protect you from similar future injuries—putting you on “higher alert” to avoid pain.
The brain’s ability to rewire is known as neuroplasticity. The neuroplastic changes that occur in the brain immediately after an injury vary significantly from one person to another and from one event to another.
Some experts believe that the nature and timing of the specific neuroplastic changes in the brain that happen after an injury may affect where, and for how long, you experience pain from that injury. In other words, your emotional state at the time of injury, or during the hours immediately after the injury occurs, may help to determine whether your pain will become chronic, whether it will occur in several places or just one, and so on.
When Pain Becomes a Disease
There are two basic kinds of pain—acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain is a temporary reaction of the nervous system to disease, injury, or other threats to the body, like the pain you experience immediately after falling down and hitting your knee.
Chronic pain is different. It can last for anywhere from three months to years, even decades. According to pain expert Sean Mackey, M.D., Ph.D., at the Stanford University Pain Management Center, “When pain becomes persistent, it can become a disease in its own right.”
Think about that for a moment. If chronic pain were a disease unto itself, then pain would be treated on its own, with little to no consideration paid to injuries or any other physical conditions, abnormalities, or ailments. That would mean you could be diagnosed with chronic low back pain, period. There would be no herniated disc or injury to blame. The pain itself would be your diagnosis.
Given the close linkages between emotions and chronic pain, your doctor might then ask about your emotional state, the stressors in your life, whether you’d experienced trauma, and so on. He or she might then recommend a therapist—ideally one who uses tapping. That would be a huge shift in our thinking around pain! It would also open up new possibilities for how to treat pain.
Fortunately, there’s a growing consensus that we need new ways to relieve pain. More than 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain each year. Many are diagnosed with physical conditions and recommended for surgery. Sadly, even after surgery, many people remain in pain, or end up in greater pain because of the surgery itself.
As just one example, 20 percent of patients who have a knee-replacement surgery end up with chronic pain after surgery. An even larger number are treated with costly pharmaceuticals that come with a long list of side effects and provide short-lived and, in many cases, partial pain relief. Pills and surgeries clearly aren’t providing the lasting pain relief that people desperately need, so what can?
Proof of the Mind–Body Connection
At the time of her research findings, Candace Pert was an unlikely candidate for changing the future of medical science. A female doctoral candidate working in the male-dominated laboratories at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 1970s, it was her success in measuring the opiate receptor that provided a scientific basis for what Pert calls the bodymind. (For scientists, measurement is the gold standard.
By measuring the opiate receptor, Pert was proving its existence.) As she explains in her book Molecules of Emotion, “Technological innovations have allowed us to examine the molecular basis of the emotions, and to begin to understand how the molecules of our emotions share intimate connections with, and are indeed inseparable from, our physiology. It is the emotions, I have come to see, that link mind and body.”
Pert was a doctor of pharmacology, an author, and an internationally renowned speaker, and her discoveries have allowed us to begin to understand potential links between diseases like chronic pain and emotions. The opiate receptors Pert measured are like keyholes. They bind with very specific keys, called peptides, which, she explains, “are indeed the other half of the equation of what I call the molecules of emotion.”
When the opiate receptor, which floats on the surface of a cell like a lily pad on a pond, binds with its perfectly fitting peptide, that cell’s behavior can change. In other words, at any given moment, a cell’s behavior can shift based on which peptide “keys” are attached to its opiate receptors.
“On a more global scale,” Pert explained, “these minute physiological phenomena at the cellular level can translate to large changes in behavior, physical activity, even mood.”
Pert’s research findings have provided a scientific basis for the idea that we can heal diseases in the body by targeting emotions. As Pert shares, “It is this problem of unhealed feeling, the accumulation of bruised and broken emotions, that most people stagger under without ever saying a word, that the mainstream medical model is least effective in dealing with.”
The Root Cause of Pain
John Sarno, M.D., author of Healing Back Pain, has seen Pert’s discoveries play out on a human level throughout most of his career. In his work with thousands of patients, Sarno identified a bodymind disease he calls Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS); myositis means physiologic alteration of muscle.
According to Sarno, we all naturally feel negative emotions, especially anger, as a result of the many stressors and demands of everyday life. When that anger builds over time and remains unexpressed, it can become buried in the unconscious mind. As he explains, “Accumulated anger is rage, and frightening, unconscious rage leads to the development of physical symptoms.”
This process is completely normal, but it’s not easily controlled by the conscious mind using conventional therapies. As Sarno explains, “Most people, if given the choice between coming to terms with difficult feelings or experiencing intense physical pain, would choose to deal with the feelings.
That’s logical. But the way the human emotional system is now organized dictates how it will react; at the unconscious level it is often illogical.” As a result, instead of processing negative emotions like anger, we often unconsciously bury them.
Once repressed rage has reached a certain level in the unconscious mind, the brain begins to create physical symptoms, such as chronic pain, by limiting blood flow to one or several areas of the body.
So, let’s say you went through a horrible divorce years ago. It needed to happen, and you now know you’re better off as a result. You feel as if you’re over it, but, in fact, while the divorce was happening, your unconscious mind buried your rage without your realizing it. That’s what the unconscious mind does—it takes over without our knowledge or consent.
Over time, that repressed rage limits oxygen supply to your muscles. That oxygen deprivation then leads to muscle constriction, which spreads to nearby muscles. You experience that process every time you clench your fist. First the muscles in your hand tighten, and, almost immediately after, the muscles in your lower arm tighten also. As time goes on, when your muscles remain tight and constricted, you experience pain.
Imagine if I asked you to clench your fist right now and keep it clenched. After a minute your hand might get tired. After 10 minutes, maybe your hand would ache, and then pain would set in. What would happen if you kept it clenched for a whole day, month, or year?
Obviously, you would experience pain, muscular degeneration, and all sorts of problems, not just in your hand but in your wrist and arm as well. Eventually your shoulder would be affected, and so on. Imagine the same thing happening in whatever part of your body is in pain. The tension builds, muscles contract, blood flow constricts, and pain follows.
According to Sarno, the only way to treat TMS is by addressing the underlying emotions that originally caused the pain: “When patients become aware of the presence of rage or unbearable feelings, these feelings can cease their struggle to become conscious.
Removing that threat eliminates the need for physical distraction, and the pain stops.” Sarno’s work shows that we can treat physical pain by finding new ways to access the bodymind and process our emotions in a more complete way.
The Brain’s Negativity Bias
When we’re looking at how the emotions and the brain interact with pain, it’s important to understand that the human brain has evolved to focus more on negative outcomes than on positive ones.
For our own protection, it was built to always assume the worst—it’s biased toward negativity. In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson, Ph.D., explains this concept in more detail:
“Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one, and (2) thinking there was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death.
“Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once . . . the default setting of the brain is to overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate resources both for coping with threats and for fulfilling opportunities.
“Then we update these beliefs with information that confirms them, while ignoring or rejecting information that doesn’t. There are even regions in the amygdala specifically designed to prevent the unlearning of fear, especially from childhood experiences.
As a result, we end up preoccupied by threats that are actually smaller or more manageable than we’d feared, while overlooking opportunities that are actually greater than we’d hoped for. In effect, we’ve got a brain that’s prone to “paper tiger paranoia.”
The Primitive Brain
Most of us can relate to what Hanson calls “the special power of fear” because it’s been hammered into our unconscious minds for millennia.
Think about your daily routine. As you go about your day, if you make a movement that causes you pain, if you’re like most people, you remember to avoid that movement for months afterward. If you also do something that soothes your pain or even feels good, you might not remember it as readily. That’s your primitive brain at work.
When you’re feeling more positive, the body is in a more relaxed state, and cortisol levels naturally go down. The body is then better able to support healing in the body, as well as pain relief.
About the Author:
Nick Ortner is CEO of The Tapping Solution, LLC, a company with a mission to bring into the mainstream a simple, effective, natural healing method known as Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) or “tapping.” Tapping is a healing modality that combines ancient Chinese acupressure and modern psychology.
Excerpted with permission from the book The Taping Solution: A Revolutionary System for Stress-Free Living, by Nick Ortner. Printed with permission from Hay House.