It’s post holiday time. You ate more sugar and drank a bit more than usual, your sleep was all over the place, your siblings stressed you out and now…drumroll…your pain is worse! I hope your initial response to this scenario is how you’d talk to a friend- “well, sounds like you had an intense week, so of course you’re in more pain!” The sad reality is that this isn’t what I see in the clinic. What I hear is, “I’m flared and I don’t know why this is!” Pain is complex and our nervous system is impacted by so many things. We know that sleep, diet, stress, movement or lack of movement all impact our pain response (and many other things of course!). But the key factor I want to talk about today is our mindset and outlook on what pain is. So, let’s talk about why having a healthy mindset and self-talk is important in all aspects of life, but can be quite powerful in the management of pain.
Quick review1 – the biggest misconception about pain is that it means damage. When in reality, pain is actually an output message to protect our bodies – it doesn’t always mean that something is damaged or broken. We will be fighting this misconception for years and have been, but I love chatting with people about this. In fact, pain is actually helpful most of the time – it keeps us alive and sends our body a message for us to take care of ourselves. Hence, holiday time- time to start some basic self care again (see habit forming blog2 post on some tips for this!)
When we study the brain and what happens in times of physical and emotional pain, there are many areas that light up in the brain – now I’m not going to get into too much of the neuroscience here, but it’s important that we know that yes, our brain gets more activated when we are in pain – both emotional and physical4. The same parts light up when we are in physical pain when we are feeling shame and guilt. That’s why you can feel a deep sense of shame and actually feel sick to your stomach – this is our limbic system!4
This is where self-talk comes in – if we feel pain and we say, “well, here goes my day. I’m going to be in pain all day”, then that’s probably going to be the case. Another analogy I give is a haunted house. If you go into a haunted house thinking, “I’m going to be so scared and not sleep tonight”, vs. “this house has actors and it’s not really haunted”, your experience is going to be very different. If you use the second mantra for the haunted house analogy, you can actually gain control of how you react to the situation.
The same thing goes for pain – This is why the more we are in pain and the more our self-talk is in a dark hole or negative, sometimes the more pain we have. Our nervous system gets sensitized to keep protecting us if we keep telling it that pain is harmful and that we’re broken or damaged, when this isn’t always the case. This is when I challenge someone to live in duality.
Living in duality is recognizing that things aren’t fun when we are in pain, and that we also have more information on what pain actually is after some really good research. Saying that, I’m not about toxic positivity here – but I am about challenging our self talk when it comes to movement and pain. This type of self-talk looks like, “yes, I’m in pain and [insert feeling here], and I also have a plan to move forward. I know that pain doesn’t mean damage” or “this isn’t forever, it’s just right now”.
How you’re talking to yourself always matters. It empowers us or limits us. And it really matters how we talk to ourselves about pain. Learning about pain and what it is matters1 and then challenging your self-talk around your experience can actually change your pain response in your body. So reflect on your self talk. Come up with a mantra that helps you manage when you’re in pain. And something that you believe that isn’t over the top. Maybe it’s just, “this is annoying and I know it doesn’t mean damage, what is my body telling me it needs?”. Because when we approach pain with curiosity it will change how our brain and body processes pain.
This can be hard. And we are talking about musculoskeletal pain here (not a heart attack). So schedule a visit with your trusted physical therapist to get you on a plan and help you learn about your body and how you experience pain. Because, white elephant in the room, pain is normal. It’s just not normal all day everyday. 80% of Americans will have some sort of back or neck pain in their lifetimes. This doesn’t have to be scary. It can be a supported experience and also a learning experience as you are your best advocate for yourself. And if the self talk is hard to address this is where our amazing mental health therapists come into play. More on how to access mental health care in my next blog – Psychology Today5 is a great search engine website to search for an awesome mental health therapist that fits your needs.
So let’s start talking to ourselves and empowering ourselves like we are our dear friends!
Be kind, gentle and honest to yourself and others,
- 1Babineau, Erin. “Why Does My Pain Change When I’m Stressed out?” Motion, 2 Sept. 2020, https://motionclinics.org/why-does-my-pain-change-when-im-stressed-out/.
- 2Babineau, Erin. “Jumping into the New Year with New Habits.” Motion, 10 Jan. 2022, https://motionclinics.org/jumping-into-the-new-year-with-new-habits/.
- 3“Body, Brain & Pain: Community Healing with Two Physical Therapists on Apple Podcasts.” Apple Podcasts, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/body-brain-pain-community-healing-with-two-physical/id1525778200.
- 4Brown, B. (Producer). (2020, July 1). Brené on Shame and Accountability. Audio podcast]. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-shame-and-accountability/
- 5Psychology Today Find a Therapist: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists