Learning to Pay Attention to Pain

by Neil Pearson

Scientific literature tells us that as pain persists, the nervous system pays more attention to the danger signals and to the pain. More brain cells are “listening” to signals from that part of the body right now. Normal signals are being misinterpreted by your nervous system as dangerous. This brings even more attention to your protection systems.

Science tells us that some people can learn to have less pain by learning to pay attention to the “painful” body part on purpose, without having as strong a reaction to the pain. We often try to avoid thinking about the pain. Sometimes we suppress the pain. Avoiding, suppressing, and ignoring pain can, at times, cause the automatic parts of the nervous system to pay even more attention to it. As an example, what happens if I tell you not think about a green Martian sitting in the room beside you? It’s difficult not to think about it.

Science shows that suppressing pain and avoiding thinking about it can be helpful for acute pain. Yet, when pain persists, these might not provide as much benefit as learning a new strategy of being mindful of the pain, or paying attention to it without as much reaction and need to respond.

It is not only modifying your attention that will help change the nervous system. Modifying how the body reacts to what you feel is also important. Remember that when you feel pain, hundreds of areas of the brain react. That is all part of the protective reaction and all these other parts can feed back and lead to increased attention to the pain, leading to increased pain. What if you could learn to change how your body reacted?

You can do this! Have you ever seen a person speaking publicly and their neck became red and blotchy? The person was anxious and their body was reacting. We 
can learn how to control this physical reaction, and when we do, there will be less anxiety. Could you learn to stop your body from jumping or your muscles from contracting when someone puts a cold pack on your back? Yes, you could! Could you learn to stop squirming when someone tickles you? Of course you can.

It might not be easy and it might take some time, yet it is possible. With practice, you can even learn to experience the pain while you control the other reactions and protective responses of the nervous system. If fewer areas of your brain react to the pain, there will be less positive feedback into the system. Then you will experience less pain.

You can also learn to have less pain by changing how much your nervous system pays attention to the “painful” body area when you move. Close your eyes and choose to listen to the sound of your breath. Take a few breaths, listening to what your breath sounds like. Now change your focus and listen to the sounds of birds chirping outside your window, or the other sounds in the room around you. Now, stay in touch with the sound of your breath and the other sounds around you. You can do this. You can do the same with the pain. Decrease how much your brain attends to the painful area by paying less attention to it and more attention to something else, on purpose.

It will take some practice.

Changing How Your Nervous System Interprets Danger Signals

Have you ever seen a child reinterpret pain when their parent kisses them and tells them it’s okay? If so, you know you can also influence how our nervous systems interpret danger signals. It’s difficult to change pain when danger signals are a high priority. Yet modifying how you attend to them can be a way of reducing this priority. Unlike with an injured child, it can take a lot of time and practice when pain persists.

Think about something you can do right now that would increase your pain. Pick a movement of your body that is so small or applies such little pressure to your body that you are surprised it actually hurts. Maybe you just touch the skin lightly over the injury area and it hurts. Maybe when you start to have a migraine, touching your scalp produces pain. Maybe lifting your arm makes your low back hurt, or making a gentle fist with your hand makes your neck pain increase. The idea here is to find something that increases your pain that you know can‘t be that dangerous to your body.

Whatever movement or activity you picked, when it hurts, your nervous system is acting as if it is really dangerous. Your job is to teach the nervous system that it is not so dangerous. So, when the pain increases, ask yourself the question, “Is this really dangerous?” Every time you decide it is not really that dangerous, you are teaching your nervous systems that they do not need to react so much. With enough practice, the nervous systems will learn that this activity is less and less dangerous. Sometimes this requires weeks of practice. Some people whose pain has been present for years have found that this technique needs to be combined with others for success. On the other hand, even people with intense burning pain for over four years and with a lifetime of migraines have reported benefits from this simple technique.

Find out about A Chronic Pain–Management Conference for Healthcare Professionals: Shifting the Paradigm, October 8–13.

Adapted from Understand Pain, Live Well Again. 1st Edition. Copyright © 2007, Life Is Now Pain Care, Inc.