“I can’t stand this pain one more second!” This line had become my mantra, my focus, my rumination. Normally an upbeat happy person, this pain really got me down I spent many hours of my day ruminating on negative thoughts such as— “I can’t stand this pain one more second!” What does rumination even mean?
ru·mi·na·tion /ˌro͞oməˈnāSH(ə)n /
1. a deep or considered thought about something.
“philosophical ruminations about life and humanity”
2. the action of chewing the cud.
“cows slow down their rumination”
After learning that pain is an experience and I had some say in this experience, I started paying attention to my thought patterns. And when I did, I discovered that I was chewing my cud on some pretty harmful food for thought! This is an oversimplification, but, when negative thoughts happen, the brain releases stress hormones, which has all kinds of effects on the body, including the release of stress hormones, which increase muscle tension—which increases pain. Wow! All of that just from a thought? Yep! It’s true! The consequences of automatic negative thoughts include sadness, anxiety, guilt, frustration and anger. These emotions in turn cause muscle tension, which causes more pain.
But how do I have burning pain from the neck down without thinking negative thoughts? I didn’t really know I was negative until this brain science was brought to my attention, at which time I started to be mindful of all the negativity being chewed upon. I started working on the intentional skill of turning those thoughts around. From “I can’t stand this pain one more second,” to “I am brave and resilient. I lived through yesterday, I will live through today. I can do this!”
In his wonderful book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Doidge explains why bad habits are hard to break or unlearn. “When we learn a bad habit, it takes over a brain map, and each time we repeat it, it claims more control of that map and prevents the use of that space for good habits.” 1
But its not impossible. Even making small changes in the way we think will have a big impact on our pain experience.
Reframing: The more an individual intentionally reframes negative thoughts and experiences, the stronger positive association becomes. As we become aware that we are in charge of our thinking and pay attention to what we are “feeding” ourselves, we can generate feelings of hope and resilience. Ask yourself: Is this thought nourishing me or draining me? How can this thought be modified into something hopeful or calming to my body and mind?
The consequences of automatic positive thoughts are satisfaction, energy, wellbeing, and a relaxed body—all contribute to a better experience with our pain. This allows our minds to be occupied with passion for activity, family, and work. A happy brain makes a happy body.
A small shift in thinking changed my whole world. As I intentionally practiced reframing my thoughts and replacing the negative with more affirming thoughts my world began to shift. Changing my thoughts about my pain calmed a portion of my brain called the amygdala, and this caused my pain to decrease.
It’s not completely gone. I still have burning nerve pain from the neck down, it just doesn’t have me anymore. I do my life with all kinds of pain signal “noise” going on in me from the neck down, but I have learned to focus on the neck up—what is good and whole and healthy with me — rather than on what is wrong with me from the neck down. And it works!
Reference: 1 Norman Doidge, MD, The Brain That Changes Itself, Penguin Books, New York, 2007, p. 60