Is your pain all in your mind? Not exactly. But your stress is fueling your pain far more than you know. Change your relationship to stress and those back issues, headaches and the like will become – well – less stressful.
Not long ago, a neurologist referred a patient to me who had suffered from migraines for over 40 years. His migraines were frequent and often debilitating, interspersed with ongoing, lower-intensity headaches. He had used virtually every medication known to modern medicine to treat his migraines - and with little to show for it. His MRI revealed nothing causing his chronic pain.
He was out of options, and his neurologist was out of medications to suggest. So she suggested he work with me.
While the patient was convinced that his long-term migraines had an as-yet undiscovered biological basis, he quickly realized that the lion’s share of his problem was stress.
We began with a series of specially designed Open Focus exercises, a method initially developed by Dr. Les Fehmi that I studied with him and have adapted in new ways. We then added EEG neurofeedback, a technological interface that helps you quickly learn to shift how you focus and actually change your brainwaves for optimal functioning.
The Open Focus work involves imagining space in various ways – in parts of your body, body parts in relation to each other and outside of you. While this may sound a little unconventional, the process is firmly rooted in Dr. Fehmi’s neuroscientific research.
By practicing these exercises consistently in specific ways, the brain markedly increases what are called synchronous alpha brainwaves – which is essentially a flow state or what some people think of as “in the zone.” By imagining space, there is nothing for the mind to hold on to, so to speak, and so both physical and mental tension begin to dissolve.
After a few sessions, my client came in, already looking more relaxed, and said, “I finally figured out what’s going on here. A stressful thought enters my mind, and soon I feel tension in my shoulders. The stressful thoughts continue, and the shoulder tension moves up into my neck, and then to my head, and pretty soon I have a migraine. But it all starts with the thought, and I never even noticed these thoughts before.”
Once he became aware of his stressful thoughts and how they morphed into physical stress, he was better able to stop the migraines before they happened. As he became more and more aware of these thoughts, and used the “imagine space” techniques I taught him to move to a less stressful state, his migraines declined dramatically.
Within a few weeks, he had halved his medication and halved both the intensity and frequency of his migraines. Within a couple of months, he took virtually no prescription medication, and only sometimes experienced low-level headaches, but rarely a migraine.
Remove the Stress – Remove the Pain
Medical researchers well understand the close connection between stress and pain. Stress impacts your nervous and immune systems, causes your muscles to contract, and results in inflammation in your brain and throughout your body. In fact, it impacts every major system in your body.
Your experience of stress can result in migraines, back and neck pain, tension-induced pain throughout the body, mobility issues, digestive problems, high blood pressure, strain on your cardiovascular system that creates a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, and increased risk of virus and infections and longer recovery periods.
Stress also is a factor in anxiety and depression, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma and arthritis. And of course, stress impacts your memory and ability to focus.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all pain is caused by stress. But a lot of it is, or is made worse by stress. My client did not reduce his headaches to zero. But he nearly eliminated his migraines and greatly reduced his lower-intensity headaches.
Perhaps just as important, he feels better about everything in his life, and is able to handle situations with ease that previously would have been stressful. In other words, he not only has less pain, but he’s happier and more productive.
If you experience chronic pain, or even muscle tension and stiffness, changing your relation to stress can have an outsized impact. Here are several effective ways to greatly reduce your stress and pain levels:
Exercise. Regular exercise reduces stress levels, improves sleep (which also is an important factor in stress and pain management), and releases hormones in your body that improve your mood and help block pain. Almost any form of exercise will do the trick, as long as you do it consistently.
If formal exercise isn’t your thing, you can get the same result with a dance or yoga class. You can also make a point of incorporating exercise into your day by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking or biking when possible instead of driving.
Meditate. Meditation offers a variety of physical and psychological benefits, including increasing your ability to manage stress and reducing chronic pain. Meditating for just 10-15 minutes a day can work wonders.
If you experience an abundance of stressful thoughts, one great way to meditate is to simply observe your thoughts, which will make you more aware of those stressful thoughts when they arise. Once you become aware of them, they become less potent and it’s much easier to manage them.
Biofeedback/Neurofeedback. If your stress and consequent pain is particularly intense, and a regular meditation practice isn’t happening or isn’t having the impact you hope for, you can call out the big guns and try biofeedback or neurofeedback sessions. Biofeedback uses technology to monitor various physical phenomena, including muscle tension, and teaches you how to control those physical factors that are intertwined with your stress.
Neurofeedback is simply biofeedback for your brain. From my experience, neurofeedback has an even greater range of applications than standard biofeedback. But either can be extremely effective in reducing your stress and pain. They each involve multiple sessions, which vary depending on the intensity of your symptoms. You can use this directory to learn more and find a certified biofeedback or neurofeedback provider in your area.
Ask Yourself Questions. This is one of my go-to methods for helping clients improve their focus in a range of situations – including for stress and anxiety. Once you become aware of stressful thoughts (and once you do become aware of them, you’ll be surprised at the wide range of thoughts that can cause you stress), one of the best ways to manage or eliminate them is to actively question them.
Ask yourself questions such as: Is this thought useful? What would happen if I let go of this thought? Could I let go of this thought? Is this thought real? How does this thought help me?
Or come up with your own questions. By actively questioning a thought, you put distance between you and the thought rather than getting caught up in the thought. And that can considerably reduce the thought’s impact on you.
Once you become aware of the stress-pain connection and how it is impacting you, that awareness can be empowering. You are no longer the victim of chronic pain that seemingly has no cause.
My client who no longer has migraines is but one example of many I have seen, encompassing a wide range of pain issues, but always leading back to stress. If you experience chronic pain, try some of these steps and notice what happens to both your stress and your pain.