There’s a key concept in the world of neurology called “neural plasticity.” What this term essentially means is that what you focus on literally changes the way your brain works and what it perceives. It’s the ability of the brain and nervous system to change and modify itself in response to what it experiences.
When we apply this to pain and how we experience pain, we can see that the more we identify with our thoughts and feelings about a particular discomfort, the worse that discomfort gets. When we are expecting to feel or are focusing on pain, it enhances the brain’s perception of that pain.
Negativity and stress in general can also exacerbate pain perception and make the brain perceive pain at higher levels of intensity. This is why many people often experience physiological (physical) and psychological (mental) stresses and discomforts simultaneously and get caught in a cycle that seems to worsen with time.
But how exactly does stress play into pain?
Under times of stress, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are protective in the short term and help your body prepare to be “on the ready” during a stressful or dangerous time, but if your body stays on heightened alert for an exaggerate length of time, those persistent levels of cortisol and adrenaline can make you more perceptive and sensitive to pain because those hormones change and amplify how your brain feels pain. Additionally, long term levels of these hormones and make healing happen slower, increase depressive mental states, decrease ability to focus, negatively impact sleep, and decrease physical performance.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO DECREASE STRESS AND DECREASE PAIN?
- MINDFULNESS / MEDITATION: When we take the time to pause and silence the mind, it helps dampen our stress response. Our favorite apps to help you incorporate this into your life include: Headspace, Insight Timer, and Calm [Hopwood TL, Schutte NS. A meta-analytic investigation of the impact of mindfulness-based interventions on post traumatic stress. Clin Psychol Rev. Nov 2017; 57:12-20]
- NUTRITION: We know that inflammation increases pain, so by eating right we decrease the inflammatory status of the body, which helps reduce pain levels.
- SLEEP: Quality sleep helps combat stress. Aim for 7-9 hours a night in a dark, cool room.
- SUNSHINE: Sunshine helps your body release the hormone serotonin, which is responsible for elevating your mood, reducing depression, and helping with anxiety. When we don’t get enough exposure to sunlight, our serotonin levels drop, leaving us more prone to stress and other negative emotions.
- MOVEMENT: Move well and move often! It’s important to help eliminate stiffness and tension. Yoga is great because it combines mindfulness with movement and focuses on the smaller spinal muscles that most exercises dismiss.
- CHIROPRACTIC: Aside from helping relieve back pain, neck pain, and headaches, getting adjusted can also alter your brain’s pain matrix due to the impact adjustments have on the area of the brain responsible for pain perception (the prefrontal cortex). [Lelic D, Niazi IK, Holt K, et al. Manipulation of Dysfunctional Spinal Joints Affects Sensorimotor Integration in the Prefrontal Cortex: A Brain Source Localization Study. Neural Plast. 2016; 2016:3704964]