I’m a 35-year survivor of chronic pain and all its twisted passions. As anyone who suffers from debilitating pain can tell you, it’s a grueling, infuriating and wearisome road, to be certain.
I recall speaking to my Grandma Stroud (RIP) about it when I was about 10 years into my journey of suffering. She had experienced terrible back pain for many years, with a few spinal surgeries thrown in to make her good and miserable.
“Do you ever get depressed?” I asked her.
She literally laughed; not in a condescending way, but more like someone overjoyed to find a friend who truly understands their suffering.
“Oh boy, do I ever,” she replied.
“It’s just that you seem so happy,” I said, confused. “You’re always laughing and making jokes and stuff.”
“That’s because sometimes, laughter is all you have. Laughter and love. If it wasn’t for God and my family, I’d probably be dead, honey. I’m not kidding.”
I’ve written at length about how my decades of chronic pain has caused anger, stress, depression and anxiety. I’ve always thought of this debilitating agony as a runaway train, taking you to places you don’t want to go. Eventually, I surmised, living in pain can drive you mad.
What I didn’t realize until recently, however, is that pain and emotions share the same areas of our brain. Dr. Mel Pohl, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, discussed the connection between pain and the brain in his fascinating article, Chronic Pain: It Is All in Your Head, and It’s Real, for Psychology Today.
“When people feel emotional pain, the same areas of the brain get activated as when people feel physical pain.”
Anyone who has suffered chronic physical and/or emotional pain for any length of time has most certainly heard someone say “It’s all in your head.” Coming from the skeptic’s view of the world, we’re either making it up or making it out to be WAY worse than it actually is.
Funnily enough, pain and dark emotions are all in our head, but this is because both stem from the same area of the brain. Their neurons are consistently crossing, aggravating the daylights out of each other, as my sister Annette and I did when we were stuck in the back seat together for long road trips as kids.
Pain and dark emotions share the same field of play, so to speak. Like when you’re watching the Olympics, and concentrating on one sport, one country and maybe even one specific athlete. Suddenly, however, the camera pans out, and you see dozens of athletes competing in the same arena in perhaps a half-dozen different events. Each athlete, each country, each sport are separate, but are all parts of the same field of play.
It’s like doing laundry.
Now stay with me here.
You have a load of white clothes and a load of colors, right? When you’re sorting the clothes, everything is separate: t-shirts, sweatpants, towels, etc. Throw your colors—especially reds—in with your white clothes, though, and you’ll wind up having to explain to your significant other why their new, white socks are pink. You can’t throw them in the wash together without one bleeding onto the other.
Likewise, chronic pain and depression are two independent entities, but seemingly forever entwined, and bleeding all over each other.
“Chronic pain and negative emotions often exist in a circular relationship, each making the other worse.”
The Emotion–Pain Connection (www.arthritis.org)
Chronic pain—due to ailments such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia—might feel like it’s stemming from our joints, but can also be a manifestation of our mood. In other words, we’re likely to suffer worse physical pain when we are experiencing dark emotions.
Quoting from The Emotion–Pain Connection: “People with depression, for example, have about three times the risk of those without it of developing chronic pain. And, those with chronic pain have about the same increase in risk for winding up with clinical depression.”
The twisted and intermingled relationship between emotions and pain is quite fascinating. Studies have even shown Tylenol (acetaminophen) has helped some who were suffering from emotional distress such as grief.
“When patients are asked to describe their pain,” Dr. Pohl states in his “Chronic Pain” article, “The three most frequently used terms are anxiety, fear, and anger, but there’s also depression, helplessness, loss of purpose, frustration, guilt, and shame.”
Dr. Pohl goes on to describe pain as a strong emotional experience. It will not only alter our behavior, he believes, but may even alter how we view the world. I mean, c’mon, how many of us chronic pain sufferers TRULY see the world as the limitless, theme-park experience we did when we were young?
One of the keys to bettering ourselves, Dr. Pohl believes, is for us to not only experience our dark emotions, but notice when we’re feeling them. Thus, if you feel yourself getting depressed, anxious, grief-stricken or stressed out, go into action right then! Go into battle with these evil spirits, using every tool in your arsenal:
Your favorite movie
Hanging out with friends
“Emotions are as real as the pain that causes them,” Dr. Pohl shares, “and I firmly believe that if people with chronic pain don’t deal with their emotions about their pain, they will never get better.”
As I stated, all of us who suffer from prolonged physical pain know it can birth dark emotional responses such as depression, bitterness and even grief. What studies are showing, however, is that it also works the other way.
Think about it: these experts are proving that, not only does pain cause dark emotions, but that grief, depression, anxiety and the like can also cause physical pain!
“Studies have shown that chronic pain might not only be caused by physical injury but also by stress and emotional issues.”
(The Connections Between Emotional Stress, Trauma and Physical Pain, by Dr. Susanne Babbel, Psychology Today)
The bottom line: chronic pain and dark emotions not only feed off each other—like two old gossip-mongers at a flea market—but can also give birth to one another. I’m not sure about you, but this was news to me.
This piece was obviously not meant to be an exhaustive work on the subject. I’m just beginning to study this, but if you are interested, there are a plethora of interesting journal articles and books on the subject.
Keep fighting the pain, the depression, the anxiety, the grief, the stress and the anger, with ever fiber of your being!
Never give up!
Never give in!