The Brain on Chronic Pain: How to LOVE (yourself and others) through it
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
Written by Jennifer Coomes CN, E-RYT
We’re back at another brain rejuvenation post, and this one will likely be one of most authentic and intimate posts yet, and it might be more so since I had to write it from scratch twice! We’re going to talk about the brain on chronic pain and how that affects the healthy expression of love with your self care and from those who love and care for you. This is most likely one of the most difficult experiences people go through, and to understand the brain through this difficult time, especially at a time when mental health crisis dominates our times, will be the key to healing correctly, maturely, functionally, confidently, and with more grace.
Truth be told, chronic pain is messy. It can pull you through a crisis of hormones, biochemical reactions, emotional responses, mental health crisis, physical dysfunction, spiritual disconnection, bad coping mechanisms, and relationships gone south. It can test your desire and will to live, and it can change a normally functioning brain before pain into a mystery of darkness, confusion, and a lesser version of yourself. That doesn’t have to be the case, and the brain is the key to answers.
The people in your life as you are healing chronic pain can play a huge role in how your brain changes and heals through this process. We talked about the topic of neuroplasticity prior with the idea that our brain is constantly adapting to stressors to lay down new neuronal patterns that coordinate with our survival. If we are creating pathways and responses that do not contribute to a thriving brain, we will experience neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration, which can lead to chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease (Type 3 Diabetes) and Parkinson’s Disease. You might be surprised to know that most of our brain chemistry and health is centered around key hormones and neurotransmitters such as Dopamine, Serotonin, GABA, Acetylcholine, Catecholamines, and Glutamate. Chronic pain is an expression of difficulties on emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual levels, and healing chronic pain will be connected to the functioning of these key brain chemicals.
I always like to make a personal connection to these more scientific talks. It helps you to hopefully relate better. As someone who has been healing from a car accident, trauma, and PTSD for a number of months, I can truly relate to the crisis of healing. Trying to love someone through this path is difficult, and trying to love yourself is just as hard.
Yet, to turn on the right biochemical, hormonal, spiritual, physical, mental, emotional responses, we must have the courage to get up close and personal with our trauma and find a new way of living and a way to release long held pain.
The Healing Arc
As a healthcare practitioner, I have trained in many modalities (techniques) of healing. I have seen many people through their healing arc into a new transformed version of themselves. What do I mean by healing arc?
A healing arc is basically the place you start when you are injured and the journey or process you take through your healing to the arrival to your new re-organized and functional self.
In yoga, this is often brought up in the practice of the "eight limbs" to get to a new place of enlightenment and transformation from places of old habits and pain and into a new understanding or awareness. A healing arc can also take place in a healthcare session with your healthcare practitioner. You can have short arcs in healthcare sessions and a big picture arc that is the fullness of your healing journey and each of these arcs play critical roles in your health outcomes.
I bring this up because every physical therapy session that I experience is taking me through a healing arc, whether a small or large one. The difficulty of this is the realization that chronic pain and trauma bring up very deep emotions, mental experiences, physical sensations, and spiritual journeys/awakenings. If you have a healthcare practitioner who is not trained in trauma care or the processing of chronic pain, you as a patient can be left in an unstable state where you need to process everything that comes up on your own. If your brain is not healed, this can be a disjointed, confusing, and traumatic process that leaves you unstable rather than on a healed path.
So, it’s extremely important that your healthcare practitioners are trained in trauma, therapeutic presence, and how to take you through a healing arc that leaves you stable and functional before you come back again.
Your Brain, Chronic Pain, and Boundaries
Healing chronic pain and trauma reveals the dysfunction in your brain. As I mentioned, because trauma and chronic pain can lead to emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual dysfunction, you need to treat yourself and love yourself with great care through this healing process. The people around you are also having to learn how to do the same thing, and this is the great challenge of any healthcare practitioner who is truly invested in becoming a better practitioner and seeing you become your best self, ie. getting to a healthy and full embodiment of your healing arc. The reality of this is that this journey will make you revisit your trauma and the deep reasons why you are in pain. It takes courage to be in this process and it takes courage to love correctly through this process, and this is not always about romantic love. Understanding what is happening in the pleasure response will also help you activate self love and mature love with those around you in light of your experience of pain.
Life partners, family, healthcare practitioners, friends, and community will be a source of different types of support and love through your process, or they can be a source of more pain.
In these very tender times, it’s important to make key choices to have healthy relationships in your life and to let go of relationships that create more pain and suffering. Why? These relationships that are extremely difficult generate unhealthy stress responses keeping you in a pain cycle rather than giving you the space to break through the cycle. This will create unhealthy cellular responses and affect your ability to create good neuroplasticity. Relationships that keep you healthy will help shut down neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration, and relationships that create constant stress will make it harder for your brain to heal. Don’t be afraid to have the courage to make supportive choices to have the best healing outcome.
The people who are on this journey with you are transforming just as much as you are, and it tests the foundations of therapeutic presence, which is the space we hold for ourselves and for others to heal authentically without damaging ourselves or patients. Excellent communication, healthy boundaries, and the willingness to be vulnerable and trust will play strong roles in truly transforming chronic pain because this pain comes from trauma, injuries, and coping mechanisms that we have implemented to protect ourselves. Those elements don’t transform easily, and I have learned more deeply how to love in all the different levels of love that exist and appreciate the people in my lives that have put up with me while I am healing. It’s no small feat, so the honest work you do to create honest and healthy relationships will dictate your healing outcomes.
Understanding Your Brain on Trauma and Chronic Pain
Don’t worry about the negative things that people say to you about your pain. It’s a wild ride to heal chronic pain and trauma and your only responsibility is to be awake and present as much as possible as you navigate. The time you waste on comparison and on unhealthy relationships and habits only distract you from the important work you must do to overcome. Be willing to own whatever you consciously know is yours to own and have the incredible courage to show up to your healing arc and transformation. You can’t do it alone and you need good people who can help you maturely navigate through it without taking advantage of you. That is why I brought up about setting new boundaries for yourself while you heal.
The reality is that chronic pain and trauma makes you more sensitive and more reactive. It affects an area of your brain called your hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
The HPA axis dictates your cortisol response and one of the big diagnoses that comes out of an imbalanced HPA axis is adrenal fatigue. This can be helped by assessing your stress responses through heart rate variability and cortisol levels and changed by vagal nerve exercises, balancing cortisol, regulating blood sugar, and improving mitochondrial function. Your cortisol rhythm will have a powerful role in changing your coping and stress responses. Imbalanced cortisol rhythms can affect sleep, how your brain functions, and blood sugar responses. Chronic PTSD is associated with lower cortisol levels while elevated stress in general increases cortisol. Fasting or dysregulation of your eating cycles can also increase cortisol.
As mentioned prior, the basal ganglia has a huge role in changing and refining your emotional, mental, and physical responses to your environment and to pain. The direct pathway of communication with the basal ganglia is more responsible for your larger (gross) emotional, mental, and physical responses while your indirect pathway is responsible for fine tuning those large responses into more appropriate responses that help you function in life. Your cerebellum of the brain also helps in this. Dopamine regulates the direct pathway while GABA regulates your indirect pathway.
The frontal lobe of your brain also dictates your sympathetic nervous system response which is also related to your HPA response. Chronic pain tends to make you more sensitive while also increasing your sensitivity in the sympathetic nervous system. So, changing chronic pain outcomes means that your basal ganglia and front lobe of the brain need to be functioning properly because this can also lead to lack of motivation, depression, memory issues, and slower brain processing that can be associated with pain and trauma. The temporal lobe is responsible for your sleep cycle and your parietal lobe is responsible for your body sensations, all of which are connected to experiences of trauma and chronic pain. Those big brain players of Dopamine, GABA, Catecholamines, and Acetylcholine also play a role in all of these functions.
The Heart of it All
The realities of chronic pain and trauma can be devastating to experience if you don’t get the correct help you need.
Being healed as a patient, being whole as a healthcare practitioners, and having a healthcare system that supports patient care and healthcare innovation in care is critical to the existence of true healing. Learning how to regulate key hormone, biochemical, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual responses in healing chronic pain and trauma can change your health outcomes and trajectory in life.
In a time when we can choose division, Darwinism tendencies, and making judgments on those who are stuck in pain cycles, we have the ability to do more and to do it better. Understanding how the brain functions in the healing arc and the healing crisis will help you love yourself better, receive love better, and love others better. This can change the existence you experience and help you see that there is a way through, even if the mountain is high to climb and you don’t know what it will look like on the other side.
I know I am grateful for all those who have loved me in the appropriate ways through my tough journey whether it is my doctor who just hugs me through my tears and fear, or my physical therapist who consistently works to break down my coping barriers and lack of trust, the people who pray for me, the EMTs who believed me and coached me through PTSD events in the middle of the morning, the people who chose and believe in me, or the people who have been touched by tears by my story to overcome. I have not forgotten during my struggle and I haven’t stopped believing that I have the power to change the outcome for the better. When we can get back to our lives in thriving and optimal functioning, we can shine a light in a dark world. I hope you are encouraged to learn more about your brain so that you can change your health outcomes for the better. Thanks so much for joining me on this journey and I hope you will be inspired to make a Clinical Nutrition or Yoga services appointment soon to learn how these services can help in your healing.
Best to you!
Please look at the Clinical Nutrition services below for more information on Essence Health and Research services and reach out to Jennifer Coomes CN, E-RYT for an appointment here!
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Functional Blood Chemistry Analysis (FBCA)
An FBCA helps to let you know more about vitamin, mineral, and macronutrient deficiencies based on your most recent blood labs from an annual physical or doctor's appointment. It will also tell you more about organ function and possible health conditions that can be reversed if addressed early. This is an excellent place to start for learning more about brain health! This service can be done virtually, by phone, or in person.
Clinical Nutrition Evaluation and Follow Up Visits
A Clinical Nutrition initial evaluation will include your FBCA and if you buy a package, it will also include follow up visits depending on the package you buy. This is the best option for someone who really needs a full Clinical Nutrition assessment that includes a functional nutrition approach along with vitals, biometrics/body composition assessment, diet assessment, stress assessment, nutritional planning and more. This service can be done in some parts virtually, but it is highly recommended to come in person for the initial evaluation for the full service.
Trauma Nutrition 12 Week Unlimited Visit Program
This Clinical Nutrition program is for anyone who has a history of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual trauma or mood disorder (anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc) along with medical conditions and food concerns. This is an unlimited visit 12 week program with Jennifer Coomes CN, E-RYT to help fully evaluate medical conditions and trauma with an established nutrition program and in depth Clinical Nutrition mentorship to ensure results. The FBCA, Clinical Nutrition evaluation, Clinical Nutrition follow up visits, and Restorative Yoga is included in this package/program.