3 Ways To Stop The Fear And Anxiety Of Living With Chronic Pain
Updated: Aug 16
The Frightening Nature Of Having Chronic Pain.
Chronic pain can have an impact in all aspects of your life and on those around you, both at home and at work. In my blogs I plan to tease out:
o Problems and challenges of your chronic pain,
o The how, why, and what of self-care.
o How you can begin to release, and relieve, tension, anxiety, frustration, and pain.
What A Horrible Mob Those Sensations And Emotions Are?
I’ll share important aspects of pain management, not from the viewpoint of a pain specialist, nor a pain management clinic, but from your perspective. You’re the person who has pain, day in, day out. At the same time, I hope to introduce you to new pain treatments you may not have tried.
There are many types of pain and many reasons for pain though all throw the owner into membership of an exclusive club. A club from which, you'd love to be blackballed.
How many of these questions below do you ask yourself, even if you are someone who will always "push through" your chronic or constant pain?
Will I have this pain for the rest of my life?
How can I live with this pain?
I'm so worried about my future?
What if my pain never goes away?
How will I support myself if I cannot work because of my chronic pain?
Many doctors talk only of the physical aspects of pain, but the above questions coming into your mind will affect your mental health too. This article gives you insight into the way negative thoughts, frustration, or anger can give rise to anxiety or excessive worrying thoughts.
My Own Story Of Anxiety With Pain!
I remember when I had what I called ‘stiff arm disease’. Some of you may have experienced trying to get dressed, but you cannot move your arms, their hurt too much.
o No-one else is home
o I must get my blouse on – what can I use to help, coat hanger, door handle???
o I’m going to be late to my clinic, I’ll miss my client if the door is locked when they arrive
o And the list goes on…….
Pain can become unbearable, too hard to keep going
Strangely enough, the worst time I asked myself “How can I keep doing this?” I was driving home from work.
A client had arrived an hour late, needed body work and my arms were always more painful later in the afternoon.
While driving home I couldn’t move my arms; I couldn’t change gears and I was approaching a roundabout – could I even turn the steering wheel?
Even over 10 years later, I remember the tears rolling down my face as I forced my so painful arms to move. I’ve never been so relieved to pull into my driveway. There is no doubt in my mind, that from the time the client phoned to say he’d be over an hour late, anxiety kicked in and magnified my pain.
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Want Some Easy Self-Care For Your Anxiety With Pain?
First, let’s begin my explanation with a physical example with which many of us can identify, consequently it’s easier to understand how our body works and then our mind.
Poor Posture When Sitting At A Computer
When sitting at a computer all day long we can appear closed down physically. Posture is hunched over, shoulders move forward, head forward and down. I call this a closed posture. When we focus and concentrate, we may even appear isolated from those around us. This is very different to simply sitting writing or working at our desk sans computer!
“How many of us complain about tight shoulders, aches and pain in our neck and even our hands and arms?”
Neuroplasticity Changes Our Physical Posture
Over time with daily exposure to this ‘closed’ posture working on the computer, your body can begin to literally reorganise itself. Connections to the ribs being tighter, intercostal muscles contract, breathing becomes shallow, making sitting up straight difficult and certainly no longer out natural posture. Therefore, when you want to open out to the world instead of being focused on a small part, the space in front of us, directly intent of what’s in front of our eyes, it's difficult. It's very difficult to open our arms and shoulders and at the same time it can be mentally challenging, not just physically. Challenging because we are trying to make a change. We want to move tight muscles and ligaments, so we need to take care to open up physically, especially outside work.
“Look around at the other drivers next time you stop at the traffic lights – forward leading heads”
Try a stretch now!
In The Closed World Of Anxiety
Now, in a similar way as the physical example above, what happens when anxiety builds up and builds up. We become over focused on our feelings, of anxiety itself. Our world that we see every day is close in front of us and it's impossible, as in physical reconstruction above, to be able to open ourselves out. We need to rely on something outside of ourselves or someone else to help us.
Next, I want to describe, neurologically, what’s happening in our brain when we get stuck not only mentally but physically too.
“Because with understanding we have the chance to learn to begin to do something differently.”
Let’s Talk About The Brain - Neuroplasticity
You may have heard the scientific term ‘neuroplasticity’. How the brain can change, how to rewire your brain and change in both positive and negative ways. Effectively building connections between neurons, strengthening, but still changeable, in a good way or a bad way.
Building Neural Connections In The Brain
If you've had children, remember them learning to read, a very essential skill that takes a lot of focus and often a lot of encouragement. When a child first starts to read it’s time-consuming, sounding out words, stumbling across the words. Maybe just making something up because the letters don't make sense.
Throughout this learning their brain is changing via neuroplasticity, neurons (nerve cells) beginning to grow. In fact, a neuron is developing and growing dendrites, as you see on the picture, that reach out to connect and send messages to other neurons in the brain. These neural connections, or neural networks continue to grow, they continue to connect and send messages to each other, messages jumping over the gaps (synaptic cleft) between the neurons.
Gradually, a child’s reading becomes easier, more fluid and more automatic, no longer needing to sound out words, sentences have full stops and understanding improves. When I treated children with learning difficulties with Educational Kinesiology, I explained this neurological ‘struggling to understand stage’ could be a akin to a road blocked by a fallen tree or washed away by a flood.
Educational Kinesiology intentional movements helped build those roads into freeways, travelling fast, no stopping, just like automatic messages travelling in the brain. This analogy shows that when neurons are surrounded by a myelin sheath messages travel more quickly just like us driving on the motorway – not rush hour traffic, of course!
Neuroplasticity Is Learning To Drive A Car
Another example of neuroplasticity would be learning to drive a car, everything seemed so complicated when we first sat in the driver’s seat. When we first start to learn to drive a car, we do things carefully, slowly, stall the car, very probably have trouble watching the traffic in front, to the side, or behind us, handling the steering wheel, pedals with your feet, handbrake and probably trying to listen to someone tell us what to do at the same time!
Very, very, complicated. But now after practicing most of us drive, it’s automatic, just like a child when finally, their reading becomes automatic.
Relieve Chronic Pain By Changing Our Thoughts
When we’ve had chronic pain for a long time, negative thoughts or emotions can occur too regularly and become a habit. This way of thinking can be automatic. When a thought keeps going round and round and round, rapid messaging takes place once this myelin sheath surrounds the neuron. Often, we can tell ourselves not to think about it, whatever it is, or even to think about something else, but that is often impossible!
Parts Of The Brain May Change With Anxiety And Anxious Thoughts
In the neuroplasticity above, two parts of the brain are involved in this process, the amygdala and hippocampus.
The amygdala is an area of the brain that is influenced by fear, being frightful, or anxious.
Neuroplastic changes can cause the amygdala in blue, to increase in size due to the growth in neurons, and the hippocampus in pink, grows smaller (Metagenics, Sept 2019).
Effectively one might say that the neural network of the amygdala gets stronger, and you notice it’s effect, whereas the hippocampus (involved with memory and learning) effectively shrinks.
Great News - This Change Is Not Permanent.
Neuroplastic Rewiring Can Take Place.
I've talked about how the brain builds connections. Now I want you to think about how to change those negative connections. Although, there is sometimes little in the medical field or even naturopathic medicine that can permanently help you with your anxiety, there is absolutely something that you can do.
Let’s Move To Get Our Brain To Help Our Pain!
Now that we have functional MRI’s (fMRI’s) that can take pictures of the action inside our brains we can actually see changes that happen within our brains. Research shows that one self-help activity is aerobic exercise, as this is good for relieving anxiety and good for our brains. Erickson et al. (2010) found that aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus.
Occasionally, it might be worth giving that amygdala of ours talking to so it can shrink away. Sometimes we can be effectively encouraging the growth of that tiny blue blob if we have some bad days with chronic pain or lack encouragement and support from our physicians.
Negative Messages (Thoughts) About Chronic Pain
Above I talked about how some of us physically can develop a “closed down” posture. Head and shoulders overfocussed on the computer or phone in front of us. Although we cannot see changes happening in our brains if too focused or too much time spent with negative ideas, negative thoughts or negative self-talk is effectively putting us in a closed space.
Therefore, I'm asking each of you to think about the possibility, only the possibility of being able to open up your mind, your thoughts to be positive, to be looking for joy, to be accepting of happiness.
Some of you may be thinking that you've worked with counsellors or psychologists, sometimes for many years trying to make those exact changes. Though these professionals help many people, but we are all different, some of us may need to do things differently. I'm not saying it's going to be easy because we have that neural network, that negative track that we are stuck on, and it seems endless.
First Step: Stop Strengthening Those Thoughts
What can be done about your anxiety? The neural paths or neural networks that you have developed because of your lived life, what occurred in your life. It's understandable that the negative thoughts are there, however I believe you can start to make small changes to chip away at that myelin sheath and decrease the negative messaging and hence your anxiety.
3 Easy Ways To Reduce The Fear of Chronic Pain
1. Movement that we enjoy, no restrictions – dancing, walking, swimming, slow walk to the letterbox, rock-it board, playing with the children (grandchildren), playing darts, doing a bit of gardening, baking or cooking your favourite food.
2. Now you’ve learnt about neuroplasticity, reduce the negative and increase the positive! Understand the effect of negative thinking on neuroplasticity. Notice the negative statements, keep a tally or ask someone to remind you to begin to reduce the number of these negative words and statements spoken or unspoken.
3. Releasing tight muscles to release your anxiety using Educational Kinesiology.
Ready to make changes today - click to self-help resources page
Introducing Educational Kinesiology
The focus dimensional of Educational Kinesiology concerns being able to comprehend the world around us, how our body moves, connects, and also links into that world around us.
Paul Dennison (2007) who developed Educational Kinesiology writes that: -
“When we are balanced in the focus dimension, we're able to comprehend-to ascribe meaning to our experience; we draw from sensory patterns in memory in order to perceive where we are, imagine new possibilities, and connect with the new cognitive patterns that takes us where we want to go to.” p. 51
The Fight, Flight or Freeze Automatic Response
Our survival is the priority of our nervous system, to ensure we are safe. Therefore, when we feel unsafe, unsupported or we are startled we have a physical reaction in our bodies. Not only a sharp intake of breath but we also activate the tendon guard reflex, locking our knees and the back of our body. These tendons hold us back behind the "participation midline" the vertical line through our centre, creating in us the sense that we're safe and invisible. Until we can relax this reflex, learning and acceptance of change is impossible, for we are in a "frozen state".
When in fear or feeling anxious the feeling of safety is compromised, we may be overfocussed seeing only what’s immediately in front of us (leaning forward). We start to do too much, literally falling into more responsibility and work, doing more and more for family and friends. This can make your chronic pain much worse.
Or we can be underfocussed, unable to take part and engage with people or take opportunities at work or study (leaning backwards). Pain and anxiety stops us enjoying work, friends and fun activities. Holding back in this way can negatively impact our study success and career opportunities.
When we feel overwhelmed or over-stimulated the large latissimus dorsi muscle in our back contracts and tightens, encouraging all the other back muscles and tendons to do the same to keep us safe. Relaxed fluid movement is impossible, agonist and antagonist muscles are confused, not co-operating with each other so relaxed fluid pain-free movement is impossible.
The Main Outcome Of Mixing Fear Or Anxiety With Chronic Pain
The main outcome of mixing fear or anxiety with chronic pain is, understandably worsening of your pain, both the level of pain, increased pain in other areas of your body or the impact on work or other activities when in constant pain. With emotional reactions pain can spread to other areas of your body, duration of pain can increase and remedies that reduced or relieved even chronic pain no longer work or their effectiveness decreases.
Movements Start Those Neural Changes And Help Your Pain
This brings us to a movement that can help start those neural changes and begin the neuroplasticity. And I hope each of you will try this exercise, a lengthening exercise to do and repeat either two or three times a day, doing them carefully and with noticing but not for a long time. It's not a workout at the gym it's our ability to message the brain by telling our muscles to release, relax and to be able to make us feel safe secure to be able to make changes and to step forward, literally.
“As the proprioceptors or "brain cells in the muscles" relax, they help us locate ourselves spatially, and we experience ease and continuity of motion.” (Dennison 2007, p51)
With changes to our negative thoughts, doubts about living with chronic pain and actually being able to release and relax those powerful muscles in our back and legs, movement becomes more fluid, less painful. Daily it's easier to do general and work activities, improving over time. Remember it will take time to re-wire the neural network that's been created.
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Have a good day!
This article is the personal opinion of the author, Jean Jordan who is a natural therapist who works online with people who have chronic pain and related stress and anxiety.
NOTE: If you have pain it's important to contact your doctor and have it checked. Always ask your pain clinician if any exercise is suitable for you before doing any exercise.
Dennison, P. E. & G. E. (2007). Brain Gym 101: Balance fro Daily Life. Edu-kinesthetics, Inc
Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., ...& Kramer, A. F. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory.
Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 108(7), 3017-3022.