Your brain puts limits on what your body can do. It limits how much you can lift even when you are exerting yourself. And it limits how fast and how far you can run.
So, is it really possible to block out pain that is arresting. It grabs a hold of your mind and clouds out all other thoughts. When you feel pain, it controls your mind, it controls you and you cannot process anything else. It is the ultimate stress test.
How does pain work?
Pain is a distress signal sent to your brain. It is all in your brain. No brain, no pain.
There are two areas of the brain that register pain:
One is physical and one is emotional. The physical sends a signal along the sensory pathway to the brain about the injury and the emotional sends a signal from the injury to the parts of the brain that process emotion (amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex).
So pain is both physical and emotional.
"You may not be aware of it, but you're having a negative emotional reaction to chronic pain as well as a physical reaction," says Natalia Morone, MD.
Pain travels along a pathway which may or may not get processed. It starts from the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord (periphery nerves) to the spinal cord (central nervous system) then up to the brain.
You can block the signal so that it doesn't reach the brain (gate control theory) or the brain can turn down the volume by producing endorphins, which are morphine like brain chemicals.
Gate control theory explains that the gates are located in the spinal cord and can open or close to allow the flow of pain messages from the peripheral nerves to the brain. What determines whether pain gets through or not is determined by different factors. These are the mental, emotional, and physical. It is rarely just one of these, but rather a mix of all of them.
The brain can send signals down to amplify the pain during stress and anxiety or it can close it, preventing the signal from reaching the brain.
The Three Big Areas Where Pain is Controlled:
- Mental: Your conscious mind can only process about 110 bits of information a second. If you dominate most of your attention by something, pain won't be perceived. You've likely had this experience when you're caught up in something interesting. You continue to work without fatigue or hunger. People without interests or bored, are more likely to feel a greater intensity of pain. If you have chronic pain, being worried about the pain will intensify it. Get your mind focused elsewhere, find outside interests to distract yourself from the chronic pain.
- Emotional: Emotions play a big role in the perception of pain. All negative emotions such as depression, anger, and anxiety intensify the experience. However, having a positive attitude, stress management, taking control of one’s chronic pain, and overcoming depression are all great ways of reducing the perception of pain. An effective method to bring you out of a negative state is through a breathing method, called 4, 7, 8. Any time you feel stressed, anxious or angry, just breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and breath out for 8 seconds. This breathing technique triggers the release of endorphins, which is your body's natural pain killer. You only need to do this breathing technique about four times before it puts you into the relaxation response. There are other factors that can produce endorphins, and those are stress, excitement, and vigorous exercise. That's why an athlete might not notice a serious injury until the "big" game is over.
- Physical: You can reduce pain simply by rubbing that area. How this works is that when you overstimulate your peripheral nerves it overloads the circuitry. Only so much information can get through in those nerve pathways. Think of it like a freeway, by flooding the freeway with more cars (overstimulation), the other cars (pain) end up being blocked. You have probably done this instinctively when you've bumped your knee, you start breathing and rubbing it and it instantly starts to feel better. There are other physical aspects that increase pain such as an injury, inactivity, and poor body mechanics. The physical ways you for increasing your resilience to pain is by Increasing activities, relaxation training and meditation.
A yogi undergoes surgery with no pain meds, using only the power of the breath.
The second part, by focusing on the breath, his mind is not focused on the pain, which would intensify it. When the mind is occupied, it's hard for it to process anything else.
Mind over matter in pain control.
You probably don't want to watch this if that sort of thing makes you feel queasy.
When he explains how he is able to to do this, he says he sees his arm in a totally detached way, almost like running a needle through a sofa cushion.
To get to that level of detachment, he did meditation. He called it "voluntary controls". The way he explains it is that most of your processes are subconscious and we don't control them. But by tapping into the unconscious processes in the body, one is able to start regulating those functions, like physical pain, blood flow, blood pressure and heart rate.
The way you begin is by following a certain breathing pattern that you feel comfortable with. It could be the 4, 7, 8 method, or reverse breathing. Once you are comfortable with it, after practicing several minutes, then you allow it to continue on its own and then begin to do your meditation. You must trust that your breathing pattern will continue. If it ends up changing, just note why it may have. Maybe there is a thought, or maybe you were in a stressed state or tired.
But by turning over a new breathing pattern to your subconscious, you are in effect controlling subconscious processes.