Updated: Jan 28
If there’s one thing I've learned about life with chronic pain, it’s that there will always be well-meaning people who will tell me what they think I should be doing to cure myself, because it worked for someone else.
I think humans generally want to fix things, and I know that when they are telling me I should try adding more turmeric to my diet, or that doing yoga cured their friend of all of their chronic pain, they are trying to be helpful. But, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, the recommendation that they swear by often doesn’t help.
So why is it that some techniques work for some folks, but not others?
To answer this, we need to look at the bigger picture.
Chronic pain is deeply connected to the Central Nervous System (CNS). So much so, that our emotions, stress levels, motivation levels, our actions and behaviours – literally everything we do and experience every day - will impact how our bodies experience pain (1). Not to mention, our pain symptoms are also going to add to our stress levels. So, when we’re looking at how to reduce pain symptoms, what we really need to be doing is taking into consideration all the things we have going on in our lives, our current pain levels, and our capacity for stress.
It's important to remember that when our stress levels are high, our capacity to handle more stress lowers. And when the nervous system cannot take on any additional stress (read: we are at capacity), one of the most common outcomes is pain. (2)
Our capacity for stress is what I want to focus on today. Because not only do capacity levels differ from person to person, but our own capacity levels can differ from day to day, depending on our baseline level of stress.
Consider 2 identical, empty 8 oz glasses. If we pour 7.9 ounces of liquid into both, the liquid won’t spill over. It’ll get close, but it’ll all stay in the glass because that amount is below the glass’ capacity. But, if one of those glasses already contains 2 ounces of liquid, when we pour 7.9 ounces of additional liquid into that glass, the contents will overflow.
Can we pour liquid into the glass and still keep the contents from spilling? For sure we can – by adjusting the amount of liquid we pour into the glass, by removing the liquid already in the glass, or by getting a bigger glass. (Or any combination!)
We can apply the same concept to our capacity for stress, and it’s impact on pain.
Yoga may have worked for your friend’s-mother’s-sister’s-boyfriend because it reduced some of the stress they were feeling, or, it may have helped them expand their capacity for stress, or, it may have worked because their nervous system wasn’t starting with a high level of stress as their baseline. But that might not be the case for you. You might need a different technique, or, more likely, you need a combination of techniques.
So, when we look at pain reducing techniques, there is no singular way to reduce pain. We need to be considering what is impacting our nervous system, and by extension, what that means for our capacity for stress. And this is unique to you.
This is why keeping a pain journal can be so impactful. It is more than just tracking symptoms. It is helping you to determine what your stress levels are like currently (your baseline), what temporary stressors you may be experiencing (such as an upcoming deadline at work, family responsibilities etc), and what triggers your pain symptoms (because they will also add stress to your nervous system).
We do not have full control over every aspect of our lives, which means we do not have full control over how our nervous systems respond to stress. By identifying what is going on in our lives, and what factors we can control or change, we can help support our capacity for stress. In doing so, we can help minimize the impact stress can have on our pain levels, which will also lead to less pain.
Cheering You On, Jenna xo
(1) Yang, S. and Chang, M.C. (2019, June 26) Chronic pain: Structural and functional changes in brain
structures and associated negative affective states. International Journal of Molecular Sciences,
(2) Cobb, E. (n.d.). Introduction to pain neurobiology. [Course Lecture].