By Tom Fontana, MSPT
Several years ago, while trick-or-treating, an adult dressed as a zombie jumped out from behind a bush and scared my daughter half to death (she is still traumatized to this day…). As scary as this would have been in any circumstance, the fact that it occurred at night on Halloween when she was already on the lookout for scary things likely influenced the size of her response. Had it occurred on a random sunny afternoon in July, it would have been less scary.
Similarly, when people are “on the lookout” for changes in their pain this influences their experience of it, generally in the form of increased severity. If maintained over a long enough period, this can lead to long-term changes to how pain is perceived (i.e., chronic pain) and the precise physiological (hormonal?) and anatomical (brain?) mechanisms are areas of intense research.
While one of the first questions we typically ask each session is, “How is your pain?” we don’t want people overly focused on it.
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to limit the adverse effects of focusing on, or worrying about, your pain all of which are free, easy to understand, and most without disrupting your schedule.
First, it is important to focus on the things that you enjoy doing and continue doing them. The time you spend doing something you love not only produces good physiological effects but also means less time for concentrating on your pain and producing negative effects. The same holds true for continuing to spend time with the people you love. There may be some activities you can’t perform or times when you don’t want to be around others due to pain and occasionally limiting these makes sense. But, routinely withdrawing will likely contribute to the pain worsening over time.
Actively pursuing relaxation techniques may be helpful as well. Try closing your eyes and visualizing a time or place where you are most happy or at peace. Alternatively, take moderately deep breaths in through your nose (over two seconds) and then blow out slowly through pursed lips (over a 5-6 second count). This will slow down your breathing rate, which is associated with calm states, rather than quick, short breaths associated with stressful/anxious states. Perform each (or both together!) for as long as necessary to “take you away.”
Fortunately, the human body is blessed with an enormous capacity to heal (though sometimes doctors and physical therapists are needed to help things along). Though pain is never a treat, don’t let it trick you into making it worse than it is.