Chronic pain can be an overwhelming problem to live with and can affect so many areas of your quality of life. Here are some important things to know and understand before starting your journey to heal.
- Chronic pain is a mind-body problem. There are two pain pathways: one from your body to your brain and one from your brain to your body. Acute pain comes from your body or bottom-up processing. Chronic pain feels like its’s coming from your body, but it is actually coming from your brain’s experience of pain. Your brain can send pain signals to your body or top-down processing.
- Your brain treats chronic pain as an emotional problem, not a sensory one. Only 2 out of the 9 key areas of the brain that are involved in chronic pain are for sensory processing. 7 of the 9 brain areas that are responsible for chronic pain are for mental and emotional processing.
- Your brain does notice pain, but it also remembers it in the form of altered patterns of neural firing (central sensitization). That’s because your brain is designed to remember anything that is relevant to your survival, which pain is.
- Pain can persist for many reasons (depleted immune system, previous trauma, genetic predisposition, etc). And, the longer you experience pain the more your brain remembers it. While it is unfortunate, that’s just your brain doing what it’s meant to.
- Just as the brain remembers, it can also forget. Your brain can always learn. This means that if you change your brain activity, you can change your pain. It is the brain’s experience of pain that sends signals top-down to your body.
- Just as you have bottom –up and top-down brain-pain pathways, you also have bottom-up and top-down analgesic pathways. Interventions like massage, hot and cold stimuli, topical creams are bottom-up. Meditation and guided imagery are top-down. Top-down and bottom-up interventions harness different biochemical reactions.
- So, the best way to change your brain, change your pain is to have new experiences that stimulate new patterns of brain activity that get remembered.
- EMDR is an integrated bottom-up/top-down treatment which uses dual focus of attention and bilateral stimulation (BLS) or alternating sensory eye movement, tapping or alternating audio sounds, to disrupt the patterns of brain activity which maintain pain. It also stimulates the top-down analgesic pathways.
- EMDR treatment of pain also usually involves resolving trauma or other psychological issues which might be subtly maintaining your pain. Unresolved psychological trauma often acts as a hidden non-medical cause of chronic pain.
- Although it may not lead to complete elimination of your pain, EMDR can help reduce its intensity and associated emotional distress..
- Keeping a lid on ongoing pain may require supplementing EMDR with interventions such as guided imagery as it gives you access to the power of your subconscious mind, which regulates your bodily systems.
- How long EMDR treatment takes depends on many things: how determined you are to get better, how willing you are to take responsibility for that, and how able you are to maintain a compassionate attitude toward yourself. Knowing that there will be setbacks but not giving up. The most important thing is to believe in yourself—that you can get better, that you deserve to get better.
Understanding Chronic Pain and EMDR Treatment:
Pain can occur for many reasons. Sometimes, it continues longer than expected despite medical treatments or it can even lack a proper medical diagnosis because there is no plausible medical explanation for it. Pain can become chronic due to stress, fatigue, individual biochemical responses or just if it is experienced for too long. It becomes “locked” into your nervous system and is repeated again and again.
But, your nervous system can heal. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) is a type of therapy that creates the conditions where that happens. Research shows that with chronic pain, part of a person’s stress response is still responding to perceived threat(s). With chronic pain, your nervous system is over-reactive to pain; it is ‘hardwired in”. It’s as if your brain keeps reprocessing fight or flight responses (feeling too much or too little) or even a super hypersensitive response that is locked in a repetitive cycle of experiencing emotional/physical pain.
Since your brain is an information processing system, in order for it to move out of a fight or flight response or a frozen locked mode of repetitive emotional or physical pain, it must be redirected. In order to activate your brain’s natural information processing to allow for a new way to experience your emotional or physical pain, you need a new stimulus that will capture your brain’s attention and keep it engaged long enough for new experiences to be absorbed. The challenge is that most soothing stimuli are not that interesting enough to hold your attention long enough for them to have any effect. Once your brain figures out what the stimulus is, e.g., the sound of rain, it loses interest and your attention goes back to the problem. EMDR utilizes various sensory processing techniques (either repetitive, alternating eye movements, or alternating tapping or even alternating audio tone pulses) that are different from other stimuli. Sensory processing and images never go “offline” and tend to keep your brain attentive because it has no content and it keeps moving. This prevents your brain from switching off and allows new information to enter your system that changes the memory or problem you need relief from. This allows for new information and healing to start to occur. As this happens repeatedly, your brain will start to process your emotional or physical pain differently and later integrate it into long term memory differently.
In EMDR treatment, the alternating bilateral sensory stimulation used (eye movements, tapping or audio tones) tends to hijack your fight or flight response. These forms of bilateral stimulation (BLS) are used to help you relax and to also allow for new sensory awareness or information to enter. They are processed in your right brain as new experiences that gradually shift painful memories, negative self -view and negative emotional and physical states that are consciously and even unconsciously connected to your pain response. Thus, EMDR is a way of stimulating the nervous system to facilitate healing. Even if your pain is not fully eliminated, EMDR often stimulates feelings of relaxation which always reduces pain.