Pain and Emotion

I’m a full-throttle believer of the mind-body connection. I’m reaffirmed in this belief day after day in my work with clients and in my own life. Occasionally, I’ll read a bit of news which causes me to recalibrate or reassess this belief, but I find what I know to triumph in the end. Sometimes, I find news which just completely reinforces my belief system. Today is one of those days.

In a study published in the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, researchers discovered an interesting connection between the brain’s physiology, our emotional reactions, and the evolution of chronic pain. The researchers followed 40 volunteers with newly developed back pain for one year, scanning the brains of these individuals and monitoring the excitability of two regions known for emotional reactivity – the frontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens. Based on the activity of these regions, researchers were able to predict with 85 percent accuracy which volunteers would develop chronic pain.

Now, the study didn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship, but it did suggest an association. The study author, Professor A. Vania Apkarian noted there could be several reasons for this association. Maybe those who developed chronic pain were predisposed to the development because their brains were already more active in those regions than their peers’. There could also be genetic and environmental influences.

Either way, it’s a wonderful new step in understanding physical pain and emotional pain. I have long believed and experienced this connection in my own life. I also see the effect physical pain has on our emotional pain. A huge number of our clients come into treatment asserting that they have chronic pain issues (generally back and/or knees) and that they legitimately need to take all of the addictive pain medications they have been using. In my own work with chronic pain issues and addiction, there is almost always emotional pain under the physical pain. Very often when we address the emotional pain, the physical pain doesn’t always subside (although it very often does!), but the client at least finds themselves more capable of managing it.

The nucleus accumbens – also known as “the pleasure center” of the brain – is responsible for many of our most intense emotions. We derive laughter, reward, pleasure, addiction, aggression, fear, and the placebo effect from this tiny region in our brains. No surprise that if we believe something will make us feel better (the placebo effect), it also hits on all of these areas. This is the effect we see with antidepressants, pain medications, alcohol and other drugs, and even sexual addiction. If something lights up our nucleus accumbens, for example intense fear from an injury associated with emotions surrounding the injury, then that pain intensifies. We’re throwing our brain into overdrive.

Which circles back into my belief that if we can learn to rule our minds instead of allowing them to rule us, then we stand a chance at changing our healthcare system and addressing raging problems in our society like addiction, obesity, etc. No amount of pills or external phenomena will fix what is essentially an internal problem. We must look at changing who we are as people. We are not just walking bags of skin and bones, we have something deeper – call it a soul or a higher consciousness, whatever. We’re not going to get there by addressing the things we can only see with our eyes.

That’s my opinion. Happy Monday, kiddos. I hope it’s a great week.



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Posted on by Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA Posted in Addiction, Body, Geeking Out, Individual, Mind, Mind-Body Connection, Spirituality, Theory
Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

About Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a mental health counselor newly residing in Seattle, Washington. I strongly believe in the mind-body connection as the cornerstone of my professional ideology, along with the healing possibilities of puppies, a good glass of red wine, the smell of a new book, and the importance of travel.