This post is part of a whole series on how the central nervous system works and how it relates to common diseases, especially pain. To begin, I suggest starting with Getting On Your Nerves (How Neurons Work). If you’re hoping to read all of the posts in order, you can then move on to How the Brain Regulates Pain, How Our Internal Environment Affects Neurons, and Your Body On Movement.
So far, we’ve learned that both out external and internal milieus can exert effects on the central nervous system. We talked in this post about how perceived physical stress can lead to hormonally and molecularly induced changes in our nerves…which can go on to create a cyclical system of “alarm” between our brains and our tissues.
As a pain person myself, I often find that when I read stuff like the paragraph above, I tend to freak out over how much of the stress in my life I can’t control and work myself up into a tizzy. If this is you, join me for a super deep breath in…and an even longer one out.
I’m not saying all of this to freak anyone out. I know that living with pain is hard enough already. I’m saying this so that we can build a foundation in order to break this down in a more manageable way.
Thoughts As Signals
The body uses compounds such as adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine, inflammatory cytokines, and to communicate with and within your central nervous system that there is something dangerous going on that might threaten your existence in some way.
The tricky part is that it uses these mediators regardless of whether the threat is real or not.
Let’s Look At An Example
Your body will release the same molecules such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine if there is an actual fire inside your house or if you are sitting around thinking, “What if there’s a fire in my house? What if I didn’t turn the oven off? What if my smoke alarm doesn’t go off? What if it goes off but I sleep through it like I tend to do with my alarm clock?”
The whole process is like an actual smoke alarm in a small way. The smoke alarm can’t tell if there’s a blazing grease fire going on inside your house or if you’re simply burning those steaks you got cookin’. The smoke alarm’s only purpose is to keep your house from burning down. End of story.
Likewise, your central nervous system is trying to protect you for harm. But it can’t always differentiate between the incoming signals of the physical or the imagined.
So here’s the big kicker here: our thoughts impact our central nervous system and our body’s alarm system about as much as “physical” things do.
Therefore it is equally important for us to think about our thoughts as it is to consider all the other stressors in our lives and stressors on our body. (And by this I’m talking about your food intolerences, improper immune system regulation, ongoing tissue damage, inflammation, poor sleep, financial woes, marital discord, mean bosses…et cetera ad nauseum.)
This isn’t a new concept, I’m sure we’re all heard this before. But I find it incredibly powerful to understand that this isn’t some judgmental, hippy-dippy assault on us as people…it’s just how the central nervous system works. And that this can be used to our advantage.
Thought Patterns: The Good, The Bad, And the Rehearsed
It’s important to make the distinction between the kinds of thoughts I’m talking about.
It’s true that it is ideal to minimize (or at least appropriately recontextualize) stress-inducing thoughts. This includes thoughts like “I’m so anxious that I’m going to cause myself more pain”, “This will never go away”, and “I’m the only freak I know.” Altering our habitual thought patterns can be tough…but it can be an important tool for getting through physical hardships.
But there’s another type of thought I’m referring to.
These are the types of thoughts you have when you’re mentally rehearsing something. Turns out, these thoughts can be an incredibly healing tool. If your central nervous system has “learned” to be in a state of panic over an action, a context, or some movement, mental visualization of these activities without the presence of physical movement can help your brain relearn that pain doesn’t have to be the norm.
As a result, you can actually practice these thought patterns. If bending over at the waist causes you physical pain but you’ve been told that there is nothing structurally wrong with your back (aka: your body has healed by your central nervous system never got the message), studies show that you can actually benefit from rehearsing bending over in your mind without moving your body.
Note: This can apply to any pain situation: walking pain from plantar fasciitis, painful intercourse from pelvic pain, and knee pain after previous injuries. All of these complex physical tasks–that are potentially fraught with pain-inducing potholes–can be broken down into smaller and more simple mental steps…and rehearsed accordingly.
The idea is to slowly start to retrain your mind to make new, non-painful connections with certain movements. When new connections are reinforced, many people find that they can very slowly start integrating the physical movement into the mix. As the brain begins to learn that these motions don’t necessarily equal physical pain, the healing of the central nervous system begins.
Will Happy Thoughts Cure Me?
Now, a note on the “positive thinking” case that I’m trying to make here. Am I saying that some “happy thoughts” will “cure” your chronic pain? Of course not.
Ongoing inflammation, heightened immune response, and tissue damage–if not addressed–will continue to cause you pain. Thinking calming thoughts will not fix these local and systemic problems.
My point, however, is that thoughts can cause similar central nervous system outcomes as physical factors. And becoming more in tune, and in an ideal world, in control of your thought patterns, can help you modulate how your body deals with your chronic pain.
Why Every Little Bit Matters
This understanding has helped me to see that the body’s innate protective patterns can be used to my advantage…and that in turn helps me think more objectively about what I do for myself. The pitfall that is very easy to fall into–and I have–is to think, “Oh no, but I’ve been thinking so many negative things! I’m screwed!”
In this sense, I’ve found that it helps to think about this stuff like I think about my diet or movement practices…as long as I’m making a conscious effort to do my best as much as I can, I trust that I’ll continue making gains in a positive direction. Plus, the mental rehearsal of previously painful actions can be thought of as exercises, which often allow us to feel as though we are at least somewhat in control of the situation and are actively contributing to our healing.