When you suffer, you have the same set of thoughts over and over; a process that clearly reinforces a given neurological circuit. Suffering takes many forms. Ways it is manifested include complaining, arguing, manipulation, gossiping, etc. There are often strong repetitive thoughts regarding the mess that your life has become. The resulting anger is the jet fuel that gets these circuits really spinning. It is almost impossible to “let it go,” because the anger feels so justified. The situation is already miserable even before we consider the unrelenting pain.
The process is similar to a person learning any skill with repetition. Athletics, music, art, computers, dance, racing, language, etc. Any skill you have was acquired with repeated specific focused movements. The problem with pain, mental or physical is that the impulses hit your nervous system so fast and are persistent. Whether you suppress or experience your suffering doesn’t matter. The outcome is the same and it is a programming problem.
Additionally, recent neuroscience on the nature of human consciousness has shown that thoughts and concepts are embedded into our brains in the same way concrete objects are discerned, such as shape, texture, color, categories, etc. In my first book, I pointed out that thoughts are real because the human body reacts to them with a neurochemical response. I was wrong. Thoughts are your version of reality and are as real to you as the chair you are sitting in. We are all deeply and completely programmed by our past experiences.
Not letting go
I recently had a patient who was convinced that somehow the orthopedic surgeon had done a poor job on his rotator cuff surgery five years earlier. Although he was in my office to look at his neck, he continued to rant about how he had been irreversibly damaged by this surgeon. I don’t know how well the surgery went compared to how well he had done his rehab after the shoulder surgery. He was so focused on the story and the sensations around his shoulder that I could not even touch his skin around the shoulder girdle. Regardless of the reason for his condition, his daily quality of life was additionally compromised by these repetitive, ruminating thoughts.
Often patients with chronic pain see a psychologist for help in dealing with negative thoughts/suffering. This is a generally a good idea — I am a strong proponent of psychological support for almost any situation. However, it must be used in the correct context. In my experience, if your sessions are used only to talk about your problems, you are merely firing up negative neurological circuits and making them more complex. It can be a form of “sophisticated suffering.” For psychological interventions to work, you also need a “reprogramming” component. Not sharing your pain