A body in pain has a brain like a heat seeking missile
When you are in chronic pain, especially if you have multiple areas where you experience pain, your brain is like a guided missile system. In other words, it is wired to look for pain. Using the analogy of a guided missile system, when a heat seeking, or guided missile, is launched from a submarine, it locks onto another target, that usually being an enemy ship or submarine. If for some reason that missile can’t lock onto that specific target, it looks for another target. This is basically the same way the brain works or most people in pain. The brain scans the body for pain and diligently focuses on the pain that is most significant.
One day it might be your neck if you’re having a bad neck day, and another day it might be your back, leg, hip, foot, etc. You might sometimes notice, “hey, my neck feels a little better today, but my back sure is bothering me.” The neck problem is more than likely still there, but it has taken a back seat to the more significant back pain. Pain competes for attention, so it’s common to have one pain go away or weaken and another take its place.
For those who live with chronic pain as a way of life, just like that guided missile, our brain often looks for pain and doesn’t stop looking until it finds a target on which to focus. This kind of hypervigilance keeps pain signals in the body overly sensitive, which is why we have this ineffective, unhealthy “guided missile system” brain which may cause things in addition to pain such as anxiety, fear, impulsiveness, anger, sleeplessness, among many other things, As a result, what we perceive is often worse than it really is because our pain sensory system is amplified by virtue of having pain most of the time with hypervigilant awareness of it.
This is a topic I frequently discuss with my coaching clients, but this article was prompted by an injury to my back many months ago. It was a fluke accident, and you can read more about it in my other article by clicking here. I thought I would get over it pretty quickly, but it decided to hang around much longer than expected and doctors still don’t know what’s wrong. Nor have we found appropriate treatments. The pain it causes on top of the pain I live with every day from dystonia has been excruciating at times. I also have other health issues that complicates matters even more.
It got to the point where I would get up every day wide awake with a sense of urgency to immediately check-in with my body to see where the pain was and how bad it was. This was before even getting out of bed. I then closely monitored my pain all day. The fluctuation in pain has been so dramatic that I have struggled to take my mind off it. A big reason for this is that there are parts of days to almost entire days where I am almost pain free in my back, only to be followed by a day or more of “wanting to die” type of pain and I am forced to lie down for hours. I use the phrase “wanting to die” just to describe how severe it can become, often out of nowhere. It really messed with my mind to where it was constantly on my mind.
I got to the point where I would feel just a slight twinge of pain in the area that is affected, and I would go “uh oh! I recognize this. The last time I felt this it wasn’t long before I was lying down on ice and heat. Here we go again.” My sympathetic nervous system was in overdrive which created more pain faster than it would have otherwise.
But here’s the good news about all of this… we can reduce our sensitivity to pain and awareness of pain. When a submarine has a torpedo locked on it, right before it makes a maneuver to get out of the way, it releases what are called countermeasures to try and have the torpedo lock onto those countermeasures, or change its focus, instead of targeting the submarine.
We can also use countermeasures to offset pain, which us what I have been doing more of by using many self-care activities, including but not limited to meditation, movement/exercise, affirmations, breathing exercises, prayer, progressive muscle relaxation, distraction techniques, and visualization. All of these are fantastic tools to utilize but are only effective when we do them on a very consistent basis, to the point that we override our instinctual, heat seeking missile brain that looks for pain and problems.
Here is one final thought to consider…how often do you look for or notice areas in your body where you feel no pain? I’m going to guess probably not too often. If that’s the case, this is something you can also do to down regulate your hypervigilant pain awareness brain.
Notice a part of your body that has no pain or no sensation of discomfort. Make your brain very aware of how it feels. Scan the rest of your body and notice other areas where you feel no pain or problems occurring. Pretty soon, we realize that we have far more working well in our body than it might feel like, and doing this exercise on a regular basis takes our focus off the pain that bothers us the most. This is the first benefit.
The second benefit is to transfer this pain to the area of discomfort. If you have one of my books, you can check out the Stress and Stress Management chapters where I discuss something called pendulation that goes into this strategy in more detail. Pendulation is a method used to unlock the freezing and hypersensitive responses of the nervous system. It is the movement between dysregulation (trauma) and regulation (healing) within the body. You can use it to visually transfer the sensation of “no pain” in one body part that I described in the previous paragraph to the body part in pain.
For those of you living with a faulty “guided missile system,” I strongly encourage you to put into practice all of these countermeasures I mentioned. If we don’t, the torpedo will always hit us and we will never be free of pain or, at the very least, minimize our pain. The more emotionally reactive we are to pain or any other undesirable life experience, the more suffering we will experience because we train the brain to look for pain. To read more about all of these things and strategies to overcome them, please see my book, Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges.
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and volunteer writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Brain & Life Magazine, and Patient Worthy. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.