In part 1, I described the circumstances that led to my turning point, when I finally realized the stressed, anxious state of my mind was directly responsible for the physical symptoms of debilitating pain and fatigue I was experiencing.
I had finally accepted the evidence, as there was no other explanation, that my mind affected my physical health.
Is this when I gave in and surrendered to my spirit guide? No, not really.
I’m entirely too pragmatic for my own good, probably. What I did next was research. I bought a notebook and I read everything I could get my hands on about how the brain processes pain, stress, and fear. I took notes and drew diagrams.
I learned about the hippocampus, the limbic system, the amygdalae — systems in our brain that relate to learning, memory, emotional responses, fear conditioning, and anxiety. I remembered back to reading about Pavlov’s dogs in school, how our mammal brains learn what certain things in our environment signal, and can trigger physical reactions in our bodies — like dogs drooling when they hear a bell that has come to signal “food is coming.”
I learned that pain actually triggers an emotional response — it makes us feel down on ourselves.
This is part of our learning center.
Think to a time you’ve seriously injured yourself accidentally. Whether a burn, a cut, or a fall, if you’ve ever had a terrible accident, chances are you went through a series of quick, hair-trigger actions and feelings at the time it happened.
- First, you probably had a knee-jerk reaction — jerk your hand away from the flame, drop the knife, slap a hand over the cut or bruise.
- Then you probably went into action — you may not even feel the pain at this point, just an immediate response like putting your hand under cold water or looking for a bandaid. You’re numb and full of adrenaline to get towards safety.
- Then you begin to feel the pain.
- And right around that point, what else do you feel? Many times, it’s anger, humiliation, or some other self-deprecating emotion. You may curse, or tell yourself what a stupid thing that was to do. You feel bad.
From what I can put together, I believe this is all for our own safety and survival. Our brains hit us with an immediate signal to get away from whatever injured us, then slap us into high gear to find safety. Then we get a healthy dose of emotional guilt to teach us never to do that again!
When people were living in caves with wild animals all around, this was a great system. It kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce, so it’s the system we inherited.
Now we don’t live in caves, we sit at desks and develop repetitive stress injuries and chronic pain. But we still have those old brain systems making us feel emotionally bad after we experience physical pain.
This can be a self-defeating feedback loop.
Our ancestors also developed a prefrontal cortex.
This is a more recent development in the human brain, and is responsible for our grand plans, decision making skills, and social interactions.
Modern humans have conflicting systems. We have our old mammal brain kicking things into high gear when it senses stress or pain, and our new, slower but more intelligent brain trying to make smarter plans.
Here’s the part where my research got really interesting…
With our cool new prefrontal cortexes, we can choose what to do about pain. This comes in handy when you start to think about chronic pain. With chronic pain, muscular pain, skeletal pain, there isn’t an immediate stimulus to respond to, but our brain’s pain centers still react the same way.
When we feel pain, our amygdala may kick in and make us feel fear — fear of movement, for example. “Everything hurts, it hurts when I move, it hurts when I breathe, (I must be a terrible person), I don’t want it to hurt, I’m going to just lie here and moan.”
Our breath stays shallow, and this in turn signals to the amygdala that we are still in danger. Our fight or flight response starts to kick in. Our blood pressure increases, heart rate goes up, constricting our blood vessels, all of this aggravates pain and makes it worse.
Remember the emotional guilt piece? That happens too. Only there wasn’t any one thing we did to injure ourselves, so it’s more of an ongoing feeling of negative emotions, often turned towards ourselves. “I hurt, there must be something wrong with me. I’m worthless.” The chronic pain never ends, so these thoughts keep feeding on themselves. It’s a downward spiral.
Or we can change our minds by changing our breath. Slow deep breathing sends a signal back to our primitive brains: “everything’s cool, we’re safe”
With our prefrontal cortex calling the shots, we can make a conscious decision to breathe deeply, despite the pain. When we do this, our amygdala gets the message that we are calm.
Slow, deep breathing actually signals to the amygdala that all is well. The pain doesn’t get worse and anxiety diminishes.
I also learned that when we slow our breathing, with continued practice, we actually get a more regulated response from our emotional response center (the anterior cingulate cortex, I’m told) that keeps us from feeling so down on ourselves from pain.
This link between breathing and brain function is so amazing to me. I was really starting to understand how linked our mental and physical worlds are.
This was finally enough reasoning and logic for me to try out meditation seriously.