To master a new language requires a focused commitment for a long period of time. Say you wanted to become fluent in French. It would take years of reading books, attending classes, listening to audio tapes and probably immersing yourself in the culture for a period of time. Eventually, a new part of your brain would develop that enables you to speak French. This is possible because of the brain’s capacity to change by increasing the number of neurons and connections between them, laying down an insulating material call myelin, and changes occurring in the glial cells, which are the supporting cells of the central nervous system. This process is called, “neuroplasticity” and your brain changes every second. (1)
“Not speaking English”
You can’t learn French by “not speaking English” or trying to improve it. Of course not. What a ridiculous idea! But what about trying to solve chronic pain by focusing on “not being in pain”? Where’s your attention? What is being reinforced? Your brain will develop wherever you place your attention. By constantly (and understandably) seeking a cure or discussing your pain with those around you, you’re reinforcing the pain circuits. As they become more deeply embedded in your nervous system, you’ll use the creative part of your brain less and the research shows that the brain physically shrinks in the presence of unrelenting pain. Fortunately, it re-expands when you have healed. (2)
“What you resist will persist”
One of the core neuroscience-based concepts of solving chronic pain revolves around the current definition that it “…….is an embedded memory that becomes connected to more and more life experiences, and the memory can’t be erased.” (3) Once you’ve developed chronic pain, the pathways are permanent. The more you fight them, the stronger they’ll become. Discussing or pursuing a cure can be compared to putting your hand right into a hornet’s nest. So, what do you do?
What is counter-productive are practices that keep your pain in the forefront. (trying to learn French while focused on the problems with your English)
- Endless quest for a cure – I spent years being an “epiphany addict”.
- Frequently discussing your pain or medical care. That wouldn’t count as quality time with those close to you.
- Not being willing to learn new ideas or being open to change
“An enjoyable life”
What you can do is to learn a new language, which is “an enjoyable life”. Since anxiety and anger are basic survival responses, that’s where your brain is programmed to go as the default mode. These automatic responses become stronger with age and repetition. To train your brain differently requires a deliberate long-term focused effort.
The first step in any new endeavor is to create a vision of where you want to go? What do you want your life to look like? Do you want to live in this state of affairs indefinitely? You can’t accomplish anything of significance until you know what it looks like and internalize it.
What you’re doing by creating and pursuing what you want is developing a new nervous system within your existing one. It’s like putting a virtual computer on your desktop. As you continue to work on learning the language of “an enjoyable life”, you’ll be paying less attention to the pain circuits and they will atrophy from disuse. At some tipping point your pain and anxiety will diminish dramatically – but not by trying to make it drop. It’s similar to re-directing a river into a different channel. It will be slow at first but as the flow of water is diverted, the force of the water will help create the new channel.
Learning the language
It’s highly doable and the idea is to utilize tools that stimulate your brain to change. The strategies include:
- Reconnecting with the best part of who you are
- Re-learning how to play
- Somatic work – connecting thoughts with physical sensations
- Expressive writing
- Re-engaging with familiar art, hobbies, music, dance, sports, etc.
- Spending quality time with family and friends (53% of Americans are socially isolated)
- Forgiveness – you can’t move forward while you’re hanging on to the past
- Giving back – there are an endless number of possibilities
- Listening – it’s more interesting than re-hashing current your own views on life
- Creating your vision in detail of how you want your life to look
- Getting organized so as to be able to execute your vision
This Simon Sinek video, The Infinite Game, is brilliant as he outlines true leadership in by pursuing a vision instead of comparing your efforts with the competition. It only detracts from your quest. At a personal level, as you spend time monitoring your own progress versus pursuing the life you want, you will less effective.
We have had a wonderful experience over the last couple of years, as we have realized the power of re-directing the brain as a family. One of the early assignments we give our families is to spend an hour remembering when life was the most fun. Why are you together? What attracted you to each other in the first place? What experiences were remarkably enjoyable? Remember these events in as much detail as possible? Connecting to the part of your brain that knows how to play is one of the first steps of developing this new part of your nervous system. You might notice that as you talk about these wonderful events, that you’re more relaxed, and your mood will shift.
What is a little disturbing, is that chronic pain often takes such a toll on the family that couples have a hard time dropping their guard enough to get into this mind set. There is a lot of anger and frustration connected to endless suffering. It’s more than understandable and persistence pays. After you have reminisced about the good times, the next step is to begin discussing how to bring that energy back into your relationship and family.
This exercise is combined with the “prescription” that you will never discuss your pain with anyone but your health care providers – ever. Discussing your pain is the most effective way to keep your attention on it, and it’s almost impossible to move forward. On the second visit, patients are usually excited about the shift in their relationships and the family is visibly relieved to not being subjected to endless conversations about pain and creativity quickly returns. Family dynamics may be the strongest factor keeping people in pain, but also is a powerful force pulling people out of it.
We all know how to survive, by definition, since we’re still alive. We become more adept with age, but we often lose the skill of thriving. Creating this alternate nervous system demands a deliberate effort. It’s the essence of solving your pain.
Listen to the Back in Control Radio podcast Learn Another Language – “An Enjoyable Life”
- Feldman Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions are Made. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, NY, NY, 2017.
- Seminowicz DA, et al. “Effective treatment of chronic low back pain in humans reverses abnormal brain anatomy and function.” The Journal of Neuroscience (2011); 31: 7540-7550.
- Baliki MN and A Vania Apkarian. “Nociception, pain, negative moods, and behavior selection.” Neuron (2015); 87: 474-491.