The Link Between Chronic Pain & Positive Life Events

I was originally going to use the title: “The link between pain and major life events”, but that would be too obvious. Most people would read that and come to the logical conclusion “Bad stuff happens, equals pain, logical”. Therefore, I want to go into the less obvious correlation, or dare I say causation, namely the link between positive life events and physical pain.

Yes, there is a link, and it is more common than you think. Positive life changes can result in actual physical symptoms, such as chronic pain symptoms, that are often considered to have come out of nowhere, until we dig a little deeper.

But before we get into that, let’s first define these ‘good’ and ‘bad’ life events. I will use the most common examples. I will use ‘life events’ and ‘life changes’ interchangeably since any of these major events lead to a major change in life as you know it.

When I say “major life changes” I mean the following, and I will class them in general categories:

  • Negative life changes: job loss, separation/ divorce, death of a loved one, family conflict, …
  • Neutral life changes: retirement, empty nesting, relocation, …
  • Positive life: marriage, new job, promotion, having a baby, following a dream, …

It is close to impossible to go through life skipping all of them, and even in the case you do, there will be other big changes to deal with one way or another. For simplicity, I will stick to the more common ones to explain the theory behind this link. We will start with the brain.

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova

Let’s start with the basics. Our brain is wired with the main task of keeping us safe and alive. Many systems are operating in the background to do so, whether it is breathing, healing wounds or broken bones, sleeping, or digesting food, and transforming it into energy. Much of these processes are just happening in the background without us having to actively do anything for it. This also applies to our nervous system which automatically shifts from the sympathetic state (the fight or flight mode) in the case of a threat, to the parasympathetic state (the rest and digest mode) when the threat has passed.

Nowadays the original stressors, such as being chased by a lion and having to run to safety or fight it, are no longer present. They have been replaced by a laundry list of never-ending micro stressors (laundry included) from grades, to bills, to achievements, juggling work and family life, and not to forget all the 100s social notifications we receive on a daily basis. To say our nervous system might be a little overstimulated is an understatement.

Then there are the things we learn during our lives, to determine what is good or bad, dangerous or safe, which then determines how we respond to events. Most of this is determined by our societal and cultural norms, our upbringing, and what we see in our immediate surroundings or through media. It is through these ‘rules’ that events such as a promotion, marriage, and having a baby are commonly classified as ‘good’.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they are not ‘good’, yet they often come loaded with the expectation of happiness, and the belief we ‘shouldn’t complain’ or that ‘we should just be grateful’. Nothing in the maze of life is that simple, and when it comes to our brain, any major change can be flagged as a potential danger. Simply because it is unknown territory. Our brain loves familiarity, so much so that it rather sticks to what is familiar in the case of a bad situation. Why? Because here it knows exactly what to expect and can launch all the default programmes to deal with the situation.

Something that society flags as ‘good’ might not actually feel as ‘good’ all the time, especially if you are already dealing with a somewhat dysregulated nervous system, because of ALL THE THINGS. A positive life event can come with additional pressure and even some internal conflict that takes a toll on the nervous system.

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

So, let’s say we have a person who is already trying to juggle all the expectations of modern life, with bills, social life, higher targets at work, the normal stuff. Now let’s add a positive life event to that, be it a promotion or a baby… Sounds great in theory, right? It might just be the drop that makes the bucket flow over.

What’s worse, because it is a positive event, now this person does not want to complain about it or allow themselves to feel any negative emotions about it. Our default is to simply ignore it until it goes away.

But what really happens? Ignoring or suppressing negative thoughts and emotions don’t make them go away unfortunately. The just build up until it comes out one way or another. That is the beauty of the mindbody connection. For some it might be an outburst, for others it can manifest itself as physical pain, often appearing to ‘have come out of nowhere’. It is the body pulling the emergency break. For you to slow down, rest and most importantly: listen.

We often seem to have a hard time dealing with the duality of things because we are so used to classifying them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. However, a promotion can be both good and bad. The raise, the challenge, the novelty can be invigorating, yet the added pressure, targets, and responsibility can be scary and maybe even make you miss your old job where everything was just easier, simpler. Yet, let’s be honest, we don’t allow ourselves to admit these things.

Or take the example of children. Having them is supposed to be the most beautiful thing, filled with unconditional love, and true joy. Yet, they can also be extremely ungrateful, keep you from sleeping, require so much work and attention. It is exhausting, and you are allowed to feel that too. Our bodies require us to feel and express that too.

Now I can understand that if you were taught to not make a fuss or complain about these ‘normal’ life events, it might feel uncomfortable to start allowing yourself to even feel it. However, if you are dealing with chronic symptoms, it might be worth exploring some of these routes:

  • A very effective and totally free way of releasing is through journaling. Writing about how you feel can be cathartic and create both awareness and an outlet for your feelings.
  • Talk-therapies can be very helpful to uncover, and release suppressed or blocked emotions especially when you have a hard time getting to the root by yourself. Mindbody practitioners, deal with this area specifically.
  • Breathwork or other somatic practices can help you release tension in the body from a more physical perspective, without having to mentally process the events per se. Sometimes working with the body is enough to release it, or it can be done in combination with journaling or talk-therapies.
  • If anger is the main emotion you are dealing with, why not try a rage room (or wreck room) where you can let out everything in a safe space for it. I have tried it once when I was asked by a friend, and it was much more fun than expected. I left surprisingly light and energised.

Personally, I have used all of these methods at one point in my life and they work like magic when dealing with chronic stress or pain. It gives clarity, reinforces self-compassion, and will allow you to release what is stuck even if you don’t know exactly what caused it in the first place.

I encourage you to give it a try.


Sources

  1. Central Nervous System Reorganization in a Variety of Chronic Pain States: A Review, Douglas E. Henry, Anthony E. Chiodo, Weibin Yang,  PM&R, Volume 3, Issue 12, 2011, Pages 1116-1125, ISSN 1934-1482, (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1934148211003893)
  2. The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, John E. Sarno, 1998, Grand Central Publishing
  3. When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, Gabor Maté, 2003, 1st ed. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada
  4. The impact of stress on body function: A review, Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A., 2017, PMCID: PMC5579396 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/)

Main – Photo by Polina Zimmerman