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We assume that pain is a universal experience, shared by all people, but it isn’t. In cultures where the experience of pain is seen as a hindrance to essential daily functioning, many people give birth, experience dental procedures or recover from surgery with little to no pain. Why? Their culture tells them these events will not produce enough pain to stop them from going on with life.
Surprisingly, our perception of what hurts is not determined by what is physically or chemically happening to us. It is a result of our brain interpreting the sensory information as a threat.
Our brains rely on a mix of cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and sensory information to analyze whether a threat exists and if pain needs to be produced in response.
If we are able to examine and question the deeply held, and often hidden, beliefs we have about pain, we might find chronic pain to be less distressing. In many cases, chronic pain may need not be a permanent feature of our daily life.
A very interesting experiment found that individuals with chronic arthritis reported heightened sensations of pain when they viewed their hand under magnification but decreased pain when their hand appeared smaller. This ability to change pain levels just by changing the visual perception of an area in pain is fascinating and it supports the notion that changing elements of the brain’s mixture of information can affect how we experience pain.
Acceptance Leads to Better Pain Management
For many who suffer from chronic pain, it's a constant threat and source of suffering that demands their attention and often prevents them from moving forward.
In that situation, it’s natural to seek to control pain because we want to eliminate it and move on with our “real” lives. However, trying to control chronic pain does not work. In fact, many times trying to control pain only increases our struggle and suffering because we suffer when we try to change what cannot be changed.
Acceptance of what cannot be changed is the antidote to suffering. One promising approach is called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (ACT). ACT has been found to help people who have chronic pain manage their pain more effectively and increase their level of functioning. Acceptance can be a key part of pain management because it helps the brain shift its sensory information processing so the brain begins to view sensory information as a curiosity, rather than a threat: something interesting to explore and examine, then put on the back burner where it’s out of one’s main focus.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/acceptance-and-commitment-therapy
Making Chronic Pain Optional: Challenging your assumptions about pain may reduce your discomfort. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pain-rehabilitation/202001/making-chronic-pain-optional
Yang S and McCracken LM. (2014). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain. Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management. 2014 March;21(3). https://www.mdedge.com/jcomjournal/article/147127/pain/acceptance-and-commitment-therapy-chronic-pain
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