- Pain from any body part is a protective danger signal that guides our behavior and physical responses to avoid danger and remain safe.
- This system is called the nociceptive system, which guides behaviors to not exceed the limits of a given structure.
- Feedback from internal organs is called interoception, and the nervous system maintains a delicate balance through hormones, inflammatory responses, neurotransmitters, and metabolism (fuel consumption).
- Unpleasant mental input is perceived in similar regions of the brain as physical pain, but there is no automatic withdrawal or avoidance response. Suppression increases the intensity. We have no protection from mental pain.
Although humans are programmed to avoid or resolve physical threats, we do not have inherent mechanisms to deal with mental threats.
Every living creature, from single-celled organisms to mammals, has two biological mandates. The first is to survive, and the second is to pass their genes to the next generation.
In order to avoid danger, seek safety, and stay alive, data is gathered through sensors located on every cell in your body. All this information continually interpreted by your nervous system to assess whether the situation is safe or dangerous. Signals are then sent out from the nervous system to regulate and control your body’s next actions to optimize survival. So, a major point is that the nervous system is necessary to interpret the intensity and type of input from the pain sensors. Otherwise, pain would not exist.
There are many different pain signals such as hot/cold, loud/soft, sharp/ dull, pressure, light touch, and position. When these pain receptors send messages to the brain that a given structure in the body is at risk for danger, the brain sends out automatic signals to withdraw from the dangerous situation. Pain is protective and we cannot survive without it. It is a gift.
This unconscious protective system is called the nociceptive pain system. What you may not realise is that this system is focused on guiding our actions and behaviours in order to avoid pain and we can get on with our lives safely. So, we are not aware of its role most of the time. It is only when the limits of a given bodily structure are approximated or exceeded that your brain receivesan intensity of signals that it interprets as, “danger!” These signals have evolved to be so unpleasant so as to compel action. It is how living creatures evolved and survive. It is also the reason why when the finely tuned protective pain system becomes unbalanced and suffering from chronic pain is so tragic.
There are four levels of responses to input from your external environment and internal organs. The variables are intensity and duration.
- None/protective: Your body is guided to remain safe.
- Withdrawal: Any physically perceived threat is met with a quick response.
- Symptoms/Illnesses: Prolonged threat – diminishes/resolves with a lower threat load.
- Diseases: Sustained threat – your body breaks down, causing structural damage.
There are rare instances where people are born without pain fibers. Since they lack protective sensation, their tissues and joints break down, become deformed, and infected. They live only 10-15 years and usually die from infection. There are also diseases that destroy protective sensation such as leprosy and diabetes. Again, the limits of the tissues are regularly exceeded, and they break down. Often a joint will become a “bag of bones.” Survival depends on your brain accurately processing sensory input, detecting threats, and sending out signals to take protective actions.
In addition to input from your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, and internal organs, humans also receive input in the form of threatening thoughts. Unpleasant thoughts are processed in similar regions of the brain as physical pain1, which creates a flight or fight response. Hence the phrase, “You hurt my feelings.”
The brain generates survival signals that are intended to be so unpleasant that the organism is compelled to respond in a way to resolve the threat. Once the problem is solved, your body returns to its baseline. Whenever a given response doesn’t solve real or perceived danger, the body’s physiology remains in an activated threat state. Sustained threat causes symptoms, illness, and disease.
Many, if not most, people have stresses that are not solvable, and avoiding stress becomes its own stress. As your body kicks in more of a stress response, you’ll feel angry. The longer and more intensely you feel trapped, the greater the effects on your body.
There are many ways of minimizing the impact of stress. However, a universal problem is the inability to escape from unpleasant thoughts. This may be a powerful force in driving chronic disease with sustained threat physiology keeping your body in overdrive.
Your brain on fire
A significant percentage of your brain is intertwined with the immune system, and signaling molecules (cytokines) fire up an inflammatory response. Your brain is not only hyperreactive but also inflamed. So, thoughts fire up the nervous system, and then your brain fires off disruptive thoughts.
Your thoughts, concepts, and behavioral reactions eventually become permanently embedded (memorized) in your brain and are unresponsive to rational interventions.2 They become your “demons” that strengthen over time. Essentially, all humans have some level of annoying, undesirable thoughts that aren’t problematic. Many experience them at a level that interferes with their enjoyment of life but doesn’t affect their capacity to function. Others are greatly affected without carrying a diagnosis of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Coping behaviors include suppressing thoughts, rigid thinking, binge eating, eating disorders, skin picking, nail biting, hair pulling, “worrying,” hyper-focusing on appearance, body image issues, and addictions.
Repetitive Unpleasant Thoughts (RUTs) are worsened when trying to fight or control them3. Attempts at mental control drive them much harder, as more attention reinforces them. Suppressing them is even worse. Then, feeling trapped creates intense angry, irrational reactions. The resultant dysfunctional behaviors create a lot of damage to you and others around you, in addition to illness, symptoms, and disease. We do not have an automatic withdrawal response to mental pain – we have no protection at all.
This inability to protect ourselves from unpleasant thoughts drives threat physiology, creates many dysfunctional behaviors, and causes symptoms, illness, and disease. There are many benefits to human consciousness, but this aspect of it is “the curse of cognitive consciousness.” We have learned to physically survive but have not consistently figured out how to thrive.
- Eisenberger N. “The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain.” Psychosom Med (2012); 74: 126-135.
- Feldman Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions are Made. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2018.
- Wegener DM. The Seed of Our Undoing. Psychological Science Agenda (1999)/ 10-11.