The brain controls the body. It is one of the most complex and powerful structures that we know about in the animal kingdom. When doctors talk about pain coming from your brain they aren’t saying that “it’s all in your head.” That saying implies that someone is making it up or that they are crazy, but that is not what we truly mean. When doctors talk about pain coming from your brain, we literally mean that is where pain is perceived.
How does pain work?
In our bodies we have peripheral nerve endings in almost every structure, from our muscles, to our internal organs, to our skin. Certain nerve endings have very specific jobs. Some nerve endings receive called nociceptors receive what we call nociception. Nociception is the body sensing potentially harmful stimulus. Once nociceptors are stimulated they send information up to the brain. Along the path to the brain the signal is amplified at least 2x. The brain then interprets the stimulus as pain. What your brain feels is often much more intense then the initial stimulus’s impact on the body.
Once signals are sent to your brain what happens?
Once the stimulus ends up in the brain it is first interpreted as pain. After the stimulus has been determined to be pain it is sent to the part of the brain where we perceive it and designate attention to it. When this happens the pain signal may be further interpreted into feelings and behaviors. Then the signal continues on into the part of the brain that processes emotions. In this part of the brain the pain may be associated with beliefs, emotions, and expectations.
Why is this important?
When the pain stimulus is being further interpreted into feelings, beliefs, and emotions it can become much more impactful. Certain beliefs and emotions can further amplify the amount of pain that is perceived. As these pathways are activated they become much more likely to be activated again. What this does is create a cascade that is completely normal, but difficult to get out of. We start to perceive the pain as having drastic impacts on our lives. We wonder if the pain is ever going to go away or if it will cripple us.
What can we do?
Understanding this process is useful. Once we understand that these thoughts, feelings, and beliefs come about naturally due to how pain is interpreted anatomically we can accept that these feelings are not something to get upset over. They are completely normal parts of the pain cycle. What we then do from there is our choice. We can choose to listen to these feelings or we can accept that we have them and choose not to listen to them. Essentially we choose pessimism or optimism. This choice has a real and lasting impact on how your body then responds to the pain. If we respond positively we are much more likely to lead healthy, fulfilling, and mostly pain free lives.