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Overcoming Pain: Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

By Pamela Shenk, CHt


Pain is a common reason for physician consultation. It is a major symptom in many medical conditions and can significantly interfere with a person’s quality of life as well as general functioning. But, psychological factors such as social support, hypnotic suggestion, and distraction can significantly modulate pain's intensity or unpleasantness.


Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article about “rewiring” the brain to ease pain. They discovered that the way you think about pain can have a major impact on how it affects you. As new scanning technologies allow neuroscientists to see how the brain processes pain, they have discovered that many mind-body approaches to chronic pain are proving effective such as meditation, hypnosis and Tai Chi as well as other remedies that are far more high tech. In studies at Stanford University’s Neuroscience and Pain Lab, subjects can watch their own brains react to pain in real time. So, they can learn to control their own response, much like building up a muscle. When subjects focused on something distracting instead of the pain, they had more activity in the higher levels of their brains. When they reevaluated their pain emotionally (“Yes, my back hurts, but I won’t let that stop me”), they had more activity in the deep brain structures that process emotion. As a result, they were able to ease their own pain significantly, according to a study in the journal Anesthesiology, November 2011.


In dealing with pain in your own life, it’s important to keep in mind that we have only scratched the surface of the power of the brain. Research suggests that the best way to put pain behind you is to focus on something else for a while and you’ll notice that it lessens or is gone, until you think of it again. But also remember to check with your doctor if you suspect that your pain is not normal or if it lasts for extended periods of time, just to play it safe.