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Reversing the Pain Cycle: Rewiring Safety

Updated: Jun 28

When the body is burdened by the physiological effects of pain, we may become more susceptible to infections and other biological or environmental triggers. We often put our efforts into treating the symptoms and easing any discomfort, however, we often ignore our immune system’s crucial role in healing. Painkillers, antibiotics, and other medications may offer support and may eliminate a pathogen but what happens when the brain does not effectively process the experience and the nervous system perceives the pathogen as a biological threat to its survival? The good news is this dysregulated nervous system response is reversible, and so are your chronic symptoms! Teaching our brain to re-learn the threat associated with chronic pain can decrease and even eliminate chronic pain in the body.

How Our Brains Create Pain

Chronic pain is associated more with brain processing rather than with physical injury. It happens when the brain mistakenly sends pain signals to the body even after the pathogen, or injury has passed, resulting in a misperception of threat. For example, if someone experiences a physical injury to a certain tissue, a signal is sent to the spine that a threat is present. At this stage, this signal is merely information that is being sent to the brain. The brain then perceives and determines whether the information is a threat. If danger is perceived, the brain sends a signal to the spine, and then to the injured body part that is in danger. If a certain level of threat is detected by the brain, the brain creates a defensive response, potentially over-amplifying the pain as a protective mechanism.

From a trauma-informed perspective, this process manifests when an emotional trigger is coupled with an event, whether biological, physical, or another, and the nervous system is unable to “resolve” the threat, by discharging the fight or flight energy required to release the event. The experience is then lodged or becomes “stuck” in the body, creating a feedback loop of pain sensations, also known as trauma symptoms.

As time goes by, the brain and nervous system continue to interpret a past injury, pathogen, or threat as still ongoing and become stuck in a habitual cycle. Other bodily organs and tissues may become sensitive to the brain’s perception of this threat and cause a host of other physiological problems. As this persistent cycle continues, how do we teach our brains to reverse this cycle and “unlearn” these sensations of discomfort and pain?

Rewiring Safety into the Brain

By learning to send safety cues to the brain and body, we can unravel this stress-induced loop. The limbic system part of the brain has been conditioned to expect pain to keep us safe. Since the limbic system is responsible for pain and emotional processing, their neural networks are shared, meaning that changing our emotional association with pain will directly affect its existence in the body. Brain retraining practices, also known as neuroplasticity, teach our brain to change the habitual patterns and neural networks that are hardwired and create new neural pathways.

Emotional processing, the ability to feel our emotions, rather than “think” them, is another important tool for chronic pain sufferers. It has been proven that the leading contributing factor to chronic pain is unprocessed emotions, in the form of anger, grief, and shame. As pain is coupled with negative emotions in the limbic system, focusing on our emotions may feel counterintuitive. However, feeling our emotions, reframing their association with pain, and creating an innate sense of safety and peace despite the pain, is the key to healing. Reframing pain does not renounce or ignore the pain but interrupts the feedback loop created in the brain that persistently sends signals of danger to the body. For example, if you are saying to yourself, “I have chronic back pain and nothing seems to be helping”, your conscious mind will need to interrupt these pain signals and incorporate emotional associations of safety – “I am safe and okay, even though my back hurts”.

Regulate & Thrive uses brain retraining techniques such as visualization, nervous system regulation, positive emotional associations, and bottom-up somatic techniques to change the memory structure of pain and reprocess information associated with pain. The practice allows us to embrace the present moment and send safety into the body and mind, changing our energy, and inviting a new sense of Self.

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