On stress, PAIN, and lemon-aid

by | Nov 1, 2017 | New this month

So I was making soup on Saturday afternoon ( I am currently enamored with Brendan Brazier and his Thrive Energy Cookbook), and nicked my finger in the process.

Not a big deal – definitely nothing serious – yet my finger kept throbbing and waking me up the whole darn night. So ANNOYING!

Has that ever happened to you?

I got up feeling cantankerous, but then -1 cappuccino later – decided to channel my cranky energy in a productive way. Let’s make some lemonade, shall we?

Last week I wrote about self-medication {I admit, my love for cappuccinos can fall into this category} and self-regulation {I also meditate and shut my phone off regularly, among other things}.

Self-regulation, according to Psychology Today, is the ability to act in our own long-term best interests, consistent with our deepest values. It is also the ability to calm ourselves down when we’re upset and cheer ourselves up when we’re down.

Research consistently shows that self-regulation skill is necessary for reliable physical and emotional well being:

Violation of one’s deepest values causes guilt, shame, and anxiety, which undermine well being.

Repetitive thinking – usually recycling our most negative thoughts and feelings – and the emotional roller coaster that ensues can generate all kinds of chronic stress.

Stress, compounded overtime, can lead to a great number of physical, psychological, and neurological changes. Stress most definitely heightens our perception of pain:

Your probably are already aware that pain is one of the body’s protective mechanisms – pain’s job is to alarm you whenever there’s damage to the body or when something potentially dangerous is happening.

It only makes sense to assume that chronic stress  – yet another trigger for that internal alarm system – will heighten our pain perception.
You may – as most of us have, of course, – experienced that in real life.

Let’s take a closer look at what happens in times of chronic stress:

Neurons – the nerve cells of the body – respond to changes in temperature, pressure, and their chemical environment.

Stress changes the inter-cellular chemical environment in a very specific way – I imagine stress hormones being almost like an irritant to the neurons – so neurons begin to fire off way more danger messages up to the spinal cord and the brain.

Our nervous system continuously renovates itself according to its environment.

The words “according to its environment” are of utmost importance here: if the environment is consistently threatening (which is how stress is interpreted by our nervous system), then nervous system builds a more sensitive / vigilant version of itself in order to deal with continuous threat.

This, of course, leads to more pain sensors, pain sensing, and more pain – physical or psychological.

And then there’s the vicious cycle: fight / flight response is turned on whenever we feel pain; so pain is, in and of itself, a chronic stressor, that also leads to more pain.

I kinda feel a little demoralized even writing this…

There’s lemon-aid though!

A whole lot of smartly designed studies (including those done with fMRI) show that simply understanding the above-described mechanism can reduce the amount of pain you are in.

Flexing our self-regulation muscle – consistently, and over-time – inevitably leads to less stress and less pain, and the benefits don’t just stop there:

Unchecked, chronic stress creates a negative feedback loop in which not only our bodies, minds, but also our relationships suffer, thus generating more and more stress and suffering.

Self-regulation can reverse that trend, creating a feedback loop of its very own.

And my nicked finger?

This is but one of the examples how our protection mechanisms can go haywire, and create pain where it doesn’t need to be. I wonder if my last week’s super busy schedule had something to do with my not sleeping. What do you think?

Hey, my name is Julia

Living with chronic pain has taught me to look for solutions in unlikely places –  places where most people see only problems.

Over the years I’ve gotten to be pretty good at this problem-solving and silver-lining finding thing.

So good that I felt compelled to share what I’ve learned and help others to find their sea legs while navigating, living, and winning their battle with chronic pain.