‘There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief’ – Aeschylus
Almost each participant who attends the Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) Practitioner Certification course that I run, looks at me as if I am talking in Swahili when I tell them – ‘Pain is felt in the brain, not at the location of injury – and it can be stopped by working on the brain.’ If your first reaction to reading the above sentence was ‘What Nonsense’ or similar, do read on.
The brain can shut pain off because the function of acute pain is not to torment us but to alert us to danger. The word pain comes from the ancient Greek poine which means penalty via the Latin poena which means punishment. Biologically, however, pain is not punishment for punishment’s sake. The pain system is the hurt body’s implacable advocate, a reward and penalty signalling system. It penalises us when we are about to do something that might further damage our already injured body, and it rewards us with relief when we stop. All those who have broken a bone know this well – at one posture there is zero pain, and even the slightest movement causes the pain to reach from 0 to 100 faster than a Ferrari.
The NLP Technique of VK Dissociation is an example of getting rid of pain instantly. Its so quick, that the client is astounded and keeps searching for the disappeared pain. The fact that the brain has the ability to turn pain off so suddenly goes against the ‘usual knowledge’ that pain comes from the body thanks to the traditional scientific view of pain as formulated by René Descartes 400 years ago. The theory that he propounded, and what is followed in the field of medicine is that when we get hurt, our nerves send a one way signal up to the brain, and the intensity of the signal is proportional to the seriousness of the injury.
This view was questioned and overturned in 1965 by neuroscientists Patrick Wall and Ronald Mezlack who published an article – ‘Pain Mechanisms : A New Theory’. In this path breaking ‘Gate Control Theory of Pain’, they argued that the pain perception system is spread throughout the brain and the spinal cord, and that the brain, far from being a passive recipient of signals, controls how much pain we feel.
The Gate Control Theory of Pain proposed that when pain messages are sent from the damaged tissue through the nervous system, they must pass through several controls or ‘gates’ before they get to the brain. These messages ascend to the brain ONLY if the brain accords ‘permission’ to do so, after determining if they are important enough. So next time you see a kid crying in pain and when his mother kisses the injured knee, and the kid runs off miraculously pain free – you know what just happened. The belief that the kiss of the mother has magical qualities which can drive away pain works in actually stopping pain signals being processed.
One of the core laws of neuroplasticity (called Hebb’s Law) – states that neurons that fire together, wire together, meaning that repeated mental experience leads to structural changes in the brain neurons that process that experience making the synaptic connections between those neurons stronger. So if a person slips a disc, which then presses repeatedly on a nerve root of the spine, her pain map in the brain becomes hypersensitive and she begins to feel pain not only when the disc hits the nerve when she moves the wrong way, but even when the disc is not pressing hard. The pain reverberates throughout her brain, so the pain persists even after the original stimulus has stopped. (The phantom limb pain is an extreme version of this phenomenon). Another theory by Mezlack is the ‘Neuromatrix Theory of Pain’ which gives out that acute pain is a bottom up sensation – from the sensors to the brain. Whereas chronic pain is a top down process as it starts from perception and not raw sensation – our expectation of our future play a major role in the level of pain we feel. This is described by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio as the ‘as-if body loop’. In this, the brain needs to know about the body state it is about to produce and thus starts an advance simulation thus executes certain movements leading to spatial displacement. This causes various hormones and neurotransmitters being injected into the blood stream changing the composition – which in turn leads to an interoceptive change.
The brain at all times is receiving three types of input – interoceptive, from the internal organs and viscera, proprioceptive, from the various parts of the body in relation to others, and exteroceptive, movement beyond the boundaries of the body. And connecting all these based on thoughts (internally generated) or visual/auditory/tactile stimuli (external) the brain causes emotional/physical pain.
Anyone suffering from chronic pain (either physical or emotional) will keep popping pills and things will just get worse unless you address the ‘pain maps’ created and increasingly enlarged with time. Michael Moskowitz, MD has done phenomenal work in the realm of pain – using the brains own opioids to block pain and redraw overgrown pain maps. The process that he has adopted has the acronym MIRROR. The steps of this system are:-
Motivation. Usually people suffering from pain have a passive attitude towards that pain. They have learnt that their role is to take a pill or submit to an injection. They expect the physician/psychologist to find some magical medication to make life bearable. In the MIRROR approach, the client needs to become active – read the triggers. Each attack of pain is to be taken as a Motivator to get to the source of pain.
Intention. The intention is to focus the mind, in order to change the brain. The small mental efforts help build new neural circuits thereby loosening the old ones thereby disconnecting excessively wired pain networks and to restore more balanced brain function in the pain processing regions of the brain.
Relentlessness. What is challenging about relentlessness is that when the pain is just beginning to act up, the patient may think perhaps it will be enough to tolerate the pain or distract herself, hoping it will pass, or it might be easier to pop a pill and nip it in the bud. Don’t think if you disregard it will go away. It won’t – infect, it will come back with even more strength. Research in neuroplasticity has shown that to alter circuits on with focus. so the next time it acts up, push back, with full focus, and with the specific intention of rewiring the brain. No exceptions. No negotiations with pain.
Reliability. When in pain, the sufferer feels penalised and tormented by it. Other than cases of certain neurotic psychological conflicts (usually with guilt), the brain is not trying to punish you. The brain seeks a stable homeostatic state – unfortunately, sometimes chronic pain is the stable state. Remember as per NLP, all patterns are created cognitively and run unconsciously? You have to break it cognitively.
Opportunity. This is turning each episode into a chance to repair the faulty alarm system. Persistent pain demoralises anyone who has it. So we need to turn the pain episodes into an opportunity to practise using our brains and bodies differently to gain control of the pain, then pain sparking shifts from an act of terror to a chance to soothe. Essentially we are turning the disease of pain back to a symptom, a signal telling us to do something to stop it.
Restoration. This means the goal is not to mask the pain or take the edge off it, as medication or anesthetics would, but to restore normal brain function – devoid of enlarged maps of pain created by the brain.
Your brain is the most complex and powerful machine that you can run. And how you run it depends entirely on you, the user of the brain. It is ridiculous that despite having such a potent weapon at your disposal, you are enriching the pharmaceutical companies while getting stuck in the cycle of self pity and pain.
Stop managing pain. Get rid of it!