Pain - the way we experience and interpret it

Pain, what is it ?

Pain in its various forms is something that almost everybody fears. It’s a deeply unpleasant experience to feel pain, and often we can’t help but let it consume us when we feel it. This is due in part to the fact that pain is a multi-sensory experience.

The idea that pain is all in the mind is a fallacy and can be frustrating to hear. It can feel as though that saying is undermining what you’re going through, even if it’s not meant that way. That being said, the mental component of the experience of pain is an incredibly important one that is often overlooked. In learning to control our beliefs about our pain, we may be able to greatly relieve some of our suffering. This does not mean that it is the only thing that contributes to pain.

There are actually three different dimensions to the experience of pain.

  1. Sensory pain – This refers to what we would typically think of when we hear the word “pain” – the physical feeling of hurt.
  2. Cognitive pain – This refers to the ways in which we think about the pain that we’re experiencing and our interpretation of it.
  3. Affective pain – This refers to our reaction to the pain we’re experiencing.

It has been scientifically proven that our emotional responses to pain affect our ability to physically heal. This is largely due to our behavioural (aka affective) responses as a result of our cognitive beliefs, which can sometimes be maladaptive.

Whether you experience chronic or acute pain, your body will instinctively react to protect you in the same way. The steps of this process of protection correspond to the three dimensions of pain.

Your body begins by detecting physical damage and stress sending signals through your nervous system to your brain. These signals create the sensation of pain. These signals don’t only serve to induce physical pain, though – they trigger areas of the brain responsible for emotional processing too. This triggers your cognitive/emotional reactions to pain, be it fear, anger or something else. Threat signals then help you take action to treat and alleviate the pain. All this happens within seconds.

Once this immediate process ceases, the body treats your experience as a learning curve and will retain information that changes the way your nervous system processes pain. This can manifest cognitively and behaviourally as well as physically, which is why you may find yourself fearful of things that have hurt you in the past.

Understanding how and why we feel pain is key in easing our anxiety around it. Once you understand the processes that your body and mind are going through to create this experience for you, you will be more able to have a handle on it and respond safely and appropriately to your pain.

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