How your lower brain chatter affects your pain

Did you know your lower brain chatter can affect the amount of pain you feel? Dr Michelle King expands on this and offers ways to quieten the chatter.

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For pain to be managed effectively, it needs to be treated holistically. Part of this is looking at how emotions and thoughts affect your pain.

To understand this, it’s helpful to know how your mind works. Simplistically put, you have a lower brain and a higher brain. Your lower brain’s function is to keep you alive and safe from danger. To do this, it constantly scans the environment for potential threats. These threats may be real but sometimes they aren’t.

Before your brain receives information from your body and environment, the signals need to pass through the gateway of your brain, the thalamus. If you’re in a state of calm, the thalamus is a bit like the ladies working at the post office: very laid back and easy-going.

However, this changes when there is a threat. An example of this is the anthrax scare which occurred back in 2011. Every letter and parcel was a potential threat and, as a result, handled with extreme care. This is what happens when you’re anxious or in constant pain too.

Constant high alert

With this heightened attention to information being processed, the lower brain is on hyper alert. It’s as if your fight or flight response, known as your sympathetic response, gets stuck. And, unfortunately, the volume of this response is constantly on maximum.

Other problems are related to this stress response too. These may include increased muscle tension, fatigue, or an increased heart rate. All of which are going to be interpreted by the lower brain as further threats. This in turn leads to a greater increase in your stress response. It’s this loop which is going to contribute to your pain levels being driven higher.

Lower brain chatter

Other things that lower brains like to do is worry, and look for problems, to try and keep you out of further danger. This may show up as uncomfortable emotions such as fear and anxiety. And if there is nothing current to worry about it will find something whether it’s in the past or in the future.

You might find your lower brain telling you: this pain is going to kill me, my cancer is spreading, I should ask my doctor to repeat my blood tests. Your lower brain chatter can keep your mind occupied all day long telling you how bad things are. These types of thoughts can worsen your pain by increasing the stress response and may lead to depression if left unchecked.

Your lower brain sends instructions to your higher brain which deals with reasoning and intellect. The higher brain knows you should be going for a walk each day and that has you motivated to change. Unfortunately, when you wake up in the morning, your lower brain convinces you not to go by giving you a hundred reasons why it’s a bad idea (lower brains don’t like change, they see them as a threat too).

How to quieten the lower brain chatter

This brings us to the question: how can you quieten your lower brain chatter? Firstly, you need to start recognising that negative thoughts are part of this lower brain chatter and that your lower brain can lie to you.

It can worry about things that aren’t actually important and not that scary. This is just your lower brain doing what lower brains do.

With practise, you can start to ignore the chatter. As a result, these thoughts start to lose their negative impact on your daily life. They no longer hold a threat, which gets the ladies in the post office to calm down again and it helps to lower the volume and get your sympathetic system unstuck. And you stop the loop that was causing your thoughts and feelings to affect your pain.

Dr Michelle King

MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Michelle King

Dr Michelle King is part of an inter-disciplinary pain clinic and palliative care team in Limpopo. She has completed a postgraduate diploma in chronic pain management and a postgraduate diploma in palliative medicine, and is the President Elect of PainSA.

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