Having Time for Pain | STEPP

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Humans, very similarly to animals are designed with a highly sophisticated threat detection and response system that is responsible for keeping us safe and ensuring we survive. Whatever the perceived threat, whether it be a teeny tiny foreign organism like a virus, being bullied by a colleague at work, surviving a serious motor vehicle accident, a knee injury or giving a speech in front of 100 people, when our body detects a threat it calls upon various systems to respond in a way that is intended to keep us safe. What’s more our reaction to threat, almost always seems automatic and is for most of us, a pretty unpleasant experience. Take the flu for example, we’re not usually aware when the virus enters our body, but we pretty quickly realise something isn’t right when we get a sore throat, inflamed tonsils, fever and whatever other nasty symptoms go with it. It can be the same with pain; our brain might detect a threat but we don’t always know it if we don’t experience any pain. In this way we need to remember that pain is the response not the threat itself, and yet I doubt if this is the way most chronic pain patients view their pain. It makes sense that when we have had pain that persists for months and months with no obvious cause, that we quickly shift our focus to the pain sensation itself and label it as the threat.

 

The case of chronic pain raises the question – Are our bodies’ threat responses really that helpful? In the modern world it seems increasingly common that our threat response gets triggered off in situations when it really isn’t a case of life or death at all. In fact we know a pain response can get triggered when there is actually no real threat or tissue damage to our body at all, and if we take the case of anxiety, does it really help to be having a near-panic attack before giving a speech? It makes me wonder how many psychological “disorders” (chronic pain included) all stem back to a similar starting point; an outdated threat response system that hasn’t evolved fast enough for our fast paced, high-pressure way of life. Or is it actually quite the opposite, do we live in a way that is out of sync with what our bodies and brains really need? Are we too used to looking for a quick fix to our problems when really we need to have a long hard look at our lifestyle as a whole and make some bigger changes? After all it seems increasingly apparent that when it comes to chronic pain, none of the quick fixes come without side-effects whether they be immediate or over the longer term. Yet pharmaceutical advertising promotes that we “don’t have time for pain”, as though it is an unnatural part of life that we should get rid of. In reality it seems these messages are really setting us up to see pain as a nuisance and a threat. Maybe we need to stop trying to artificially manipulate or get rid of the sensation of pain and instead consider why we’re feeling threatened in the first place. Maybe if we did have some time for pain we wouldn’t see it as quite so threatening. It’s some food for thought…

 

Felicity Slevin, Psychologist at STEPP, Nowra

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