This Could Totally Change The Way You Feel Pain

Illustrated by Tyler Spangler.
Sure, "mind over matter" is a pretty tired cliché at this point. But, physical pain and emotional pain are so connected that reducing one could help heal the other, reports Science of Us.  As neuroscientist David Linden explained on NPR's Fresh Air this week, chronic pain is common in those with depression and/or anxiety disorders, and people dealing with chronic pain often develop depression or anxiety to go with it. This is a pretty well-established combo, but we still don't have a firm idea of why it happens. What we do know is that pain has an emotional component, which is often a need to get away from whatever's making you hurt rather than the pain itself. That emotional pain processing — as well as emotional regulation in general — is associated with an interconnected set of brain areas called the limbic system. So, anatomically, pain and emotion have a lot in common.  The way we feel emotionally about pain can also affect how we experience it physically. For instance, when we expect pain to be worse, it often is. So, someone who experiences pain chronically is probably more likely to expect to feel it in the future. Linden says this can cause a "horrible positive feedback loop" in which pain makes us anxious about feeling pain, which just causes us to feel more pain.  Recent research backs that up even more: When given antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, patients with chronic pain often feel their pain lessen. But, taming anxiety with mindfulness rather than meds has been shown to be pretty helpful, too. One of the most commonly cited programs is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was founded in the 1970s specifically to treat chronic pain. More recently, a small preliminary study from last year built on the decades of existing research to show that mindfulness training can be effective as part of a treatment plan for people with chronic low-back pain. So, training us to accept pain and move on (with or without medications) can actually make it feel less awful physically. Obviously, check in with your doctor if you're considering looking into these potential treatments. But, mindfulness is having a bit of a moment these days. Which means people are eager to tell you easy ways to get more of it — like these.

More from Mind

R29 Original Series