How Fear Makes Pain Worse

Everyone experiences pain. There are no exceptions to this. In graduate school I often heard a well-worn phrase, “everyone’s pain hurts.” That was brought to teach us not to judge our clients, to accept that everyone has a different ability to tolerate pain, and so we should never think we would tolerate someone else’s pain better than they do. One difference in the various degrees to which people tolerate pain seems to be the amount of fear the client engages in response to the pain.

This is a sophisticated partnership. As soon as the brain receives the pain signal, the fear instinct kicks in. This is a beautiful thing, as the signal for pain tells the primitive basic survival instinct that the body is in danger. The fear reflex brings with it a series of mechanisms that assist the fight or flight instinct, many of which are recognisable: muscles tense, breathing becomes rapid and shallow in order to increase oxygen flow to the muscles, and the mind shifts its focus to become hyper aware of the painful sensations it wants to avoid.

The problem with allowing the fear reflex to take over is that it prepares us for something that never comes. The experience of pain that is not being induced by a lion’s jaw clamping down on our thighs is exacerbated by the stress reaction. In other words, once the fear kicks in, bringing a host of physical and psychological responses with it, all of that preparedness just sits there, making us anxious. And, this makes the pain even worse!

So, what do we do if the body is NOT in danger?

We can stop the pain-fear reflex from happening.With mindfulness and other meditation techniques, we can unlearn this primal pattern of pain-fear and undo the process of gearing up for fight or flight. We can learn to talk ourselves down from the hyper-alert readiness state, and relax our bodies. Once we unwrap all the layers of fear and stress, an amazing thing happens: The pain hurts less.

As it turns out, fear is far more painful than just pain. The pain we experience with Fibro will not do us any actual harm. We have nothing to fear from this pain. It’s just pain. It’s not dangerous. When we allow this message into our deeper being, we hurt less. I encourage you to try it.

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