Mind over matter. The brain beneath my chronic pain.

When I was 11 I had a gymnastics coach who wondered if I might have juvenile arthritis. I was in pain often and I was training for gymnastics a few times a week. I have no idea if the pain that I had then is linked with the chronic pain that I experience today. I do think that some of my childhood contributed to it and probably contributes to the pain that I experience now.

I have been learning a lot about ways that emotional trauma has an impact on health, especially on chronic pain. One of the things that I’ve learned is that trauma or adverse childhood experiences and high levels of stress all contribute to chronic pain. Regardless of where the chronic pain stemmed from. Even when someone has pain resulting from an injury. When it becomes a chronic pain there is usually something in our past associated with trauma or stress. And likely something from childhood.

I didn’t have a traumatic childhood, but I do think that I had a stressful childhood. I don’t believe stress is necessarily a negative thing. There is definitely negative stress. But some of the stresses are good stresses. There are positive things that cause stress. Things like getting married, child birth, moving to a new place where you are starting a new job… But at the same time there are also negative stresses like a car accident or bullying or domestic violence that are also traumatic. Stress and trauma contribute to the way that your brain is wired. That has an impact on mental health and on how your body experiences pain.

Mind over matter. 

This isn’t to say that pain is all in your head. Unfortunately some people do believe that. But that’s not at all what I’m saying.  Our brain is wired and has receptors for pain that are developed in our childhood and are affected by our life experiences. So when you have an experience of high stress… that will have an effect on how your brain is wired. Both with how we experience those emotional situations and also with things like pain.

Childhood stresses

So when I was 11 years old I was a child of an RCMP member (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a federal police force). That meant that we were usually transferred to a new posting every 3-5 years. I had already moved halfway across the country twice by the time I was 8. The move at age 8 moved us to an isolated community in the north. As caucasian English speakers we were in the minority. That doesn’t mean that we suffered from discrimination. In fact the opposite was true for “whites”. Even though the white English were less in numbers we still held greater power. We held the professional service positions that had brought us to the community: police, doctors, teachers, firefighters, etc.

We moved to that community from Saskatchewan. I was one of the few white girls in my class and I very quickly became a target of a bully. I lived in the community at a time when children were held back if they didn’t do well in school. Today we know for social development it is important for children to learn with their peer groups – even if they haven’t mastered the skill level to move on. At that time I had a 16 year old girl in my grade 5 class. I was 10 years old. And she decided that she didn’t like me. She harassed me, physically attacked me and tried to taunt me into fighting with her.

This is an example of the kind of stress that I experienced in my childhood. I think that it may have contributed to my health condition then and today. At the time these things didn’t really feel so serious. I certainly didn’t attribute it to the pain I was experiencing when I was in gymnastics.

Chronic acute stress

Skip ahead to today. I believe my development of fibromyalgia more than 15 years ago is due to chronic acute stress. Some of the stress hasn’t been traumatic. Some of the stress has been from some of those positive life changes.

I moved a lot. I enjoyed moving. I liked the change. I liked getting to know new communities… new people and learning a new culture. Those things, while I experienced them as positive stress, were stressful things. And were experiences that would have had an impact on my brain development and the wiring of those pain receptors and how my brain interprets the things that my body experiences.

Now Distant Thoughts

Marital stress

I have experienced quite a number of  traumatic things in my adult life. A marriage that ended after ten years. During which my ex-husband had two affairs. Moving multiple times. When we were looking for new opportunities and then because he had joined the military, and then when we were posted. We had two children during that time. I changed jobs multiple times because of those moves. Some of those things were positive. But, it was a roller coaster of a marriage. And the things that I think had the biggest impact on my health were those of highly traumatic negative stress.

Own your choices

Since that time I have also had a couple of very negative work environments. I ended up taking a medical leave and eventually moving on to another job. Making the decision to move on was a difficult one. And I made that decision again three years ago. I moved to a job that definitely allowed for a decrease in that stress, but also meant a big decrease in my pay cheque.

Significant loss

I lost my mother 6 years ago. It was quite sudden. We were close. I had just moved back to Nova Scotia where my parents were living, a few years before. We had lived a long way away from each other for quite a while. We didn’t live close enough to see each other everyday, but close enough that we could see each other when we wanted to.

When I lost my mom I felt like I’d lost a huge piece of myself. I’m sure most people who lose a parent at a young age feel that way. My mom was 59, I had eleven year old and nine year old daughters who were very close to their Nanny. I lost not only my mom, but the biggest support in my life.

Mom was someone who understood what I was going through. She also had chronic pain. She also had fibromyalgia. Mom could relate to my migraines. Mom would take care of me. She was one of the few people who did.

My own theory for a number of years now has been that my life of chronic acute stress has been the main cause of my pain, chronic sleep issues and frequent migraines.

Improving mental health and chronic pain

I’ve been learning a lot about things that we can do to improve our health and especially our pain and mental health. Each of those things can be isolated when describing what they are and how to treat them. But they are interconnected and have commonalities both in cause & effect and in treatments. So one of the things that I have learned will have the most significant benefit is to address those root causes. Of where the pain, the depression, the anxiety, the migraines, the chronic health issues all are likely stemming from.

Things like mindfulness practise. Things like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). By addressing childhood adversity in a way that you come to terms with and can separate those experiences from your pain conditions our health can improve. I’ve found a number of different experts from both traditional medicine and from a psychological perspective who say a lot of the same things.

Of course we need to address the things that are very clearly physical. Like eating right. And physical activity. And doing what you can to improve your sleep. Based on the routine that you have every day and the things that you consume.

Mom: A life force that lives on within and around me.

The brain beneath my chronic pain

But there is this whole other piece that can also help to integrate the way that your brain processes experiences and the way that your brain tells you your body is experiencing things. It is actually those pain receptors that can be positively affected by psychiatric and psychological treatment.

Mindfulness isn’t this hooey, soft, ineffective trend that people do just to feel some inner peace. Practising psychological, CBT, psychiatric treatment or emotional therapy are actually ways of changing the way that you brain perceives experiences.  Physical and otherwise.

I’m starting to practise some of these exercises. And I’m beginning to find that even the way that I think about my pain and how I am feeling each day is different than it was before. I have heard a lot of positive reports from others doing these exercises too.

These are not things that would be of concern medically or counter-indicated. They are not exercises that could result in making things worse. Unlike the medication that is prescribed to me that might have side effects or could result in addiction. Sometimes there are physical therapies that a person can try that can actually cause injury if not done properly.

The exercises that I am talking about are gentle exercises of your brain. At their very worst they could have no positive effect. At their very they best they could help me feel better.

Choose to feel better

People need to be hearing that we have control over how we perceive (feel) our own physical experiences. We are able to change our mental health. And we can do so by making choices and by doing exercises that require a little bit of discipline. But are actually quite easy to do without needing a lot of professional guidance.

A picture of mental health. Photo credit: Debbie Roberts

Photo credit: Debbie Roberts

So that’s where I am at.

I am starting to make these exercises a part of my routine.

It’s not easy. When you start from a place where your day to day means just getting through the day. Feeling completely spent, exhausted and uncomfortable. Maybe even in intolerable pain. It is very difficult to see where you can make the time and mental space to do these exercises.

So, I’m starting small. I’m starting with little short exercises a few times a week. Hopefully increasing that to several times/week soon, and then to a daily practise.

Once I have a daily practise, I will increase the length and number of exercises that I do. I can change the connection that my body has with my mind and my emotions and how I relate to the world. Both the physical environment around me and the people that I have relationships with.

I’m going to share a few resources that I have found really helpful.

I would love to hear your story and if you’ve tried any of these things, what kinds of outcomes you’ve had. Maybe there is some way that we can hold each other accountable. I’m going to do a challenge myself next month and I hope that you will join me. We can be accountability partners and supports for each other and others in need as well.

Sign up for my free worksheet to help you figure out your own wellness goals. Join my facebook group and tell me what your intention is. I want to hear how you plan to challenge yourself to get better.

About Trish

family legacy curator, social justice advocate, blogger, amateur photographer, reader, cyclist, runner & swimmer, mom of two