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What is Pain—And How Does Your Brain Cope?

Author: NeuroGym Team | 2022

What do stubbing your toe on the coffee table and grieving a loss have in common?

While these are silly examples to compare, both are experiences that people tend to describe as painful.

Physical pain is an evolutionary survival mechanism as old as time. When we feel physical pain, our brains and bodies are primed by millions of years of evolution to react instinctively, stop what’s happening, and get ourselves to safety.

If someone’s in physical pain, we know it must be coming from somewhere or something, so we can look for the cause and a way to fix it. But what about emotional pain?

While we have drugs that can effectively block or reduce the sensation of physical pain, emotional pain is trickier, and it’s not healthy to try and ignore emotional pain through substance use. But understanding how our brains process physical and emotional pain can help us maintain control of ourselves and our lives—no matter how much it hurts.

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How Does the Brain Process Pain?

It’s common knowledge that pain comes from signals sent between the brain and the nervous system. But how does this work?

Let’s say you’re petting a dog, and it bites you. The signals that travel from the skin on your hand up to your brain via the peripheral nervous system are collectively known as nociception, which your brain interprets as pain.

There are two types of nerve “fibers” involved in pain: A-delta fibers, which prompt the jolt that causes you to yank your hand back from the dog, and C fibers, which cause the bite to continue hurting afterwards.

The signals from these nerves run up the spinal cord through ion channels, another specialized type of nerve fiber. Once they reach your brain, several brain regions including the thalamus, brain stem, and parts of the cortex, spring into action to figure out what’s going on and what you need to do.

The processes that make you yank your hand back are mainly subconscious, but your conscious mind’s interpretation of the secondary pain you feel can entirely change the experience. For example, if you’re really upset about the pain or really focused on it, it’ll hurt even more.

Your brain can block nociceptive signals directly at the spinal cord if you need to push through pain temporarily. For instance, stress hormones like adrenaline can reduce pain when you’re in fight-or-flight mode!

If nothing else, remember this message: Your experience of pain depends heavily on how you feel about it, and how much you focus on it!

What About Emotional Pain?

Emotional and physical pain have a lot in common. Virtually every culture in history has described feelings like grief, heartbreak, and loneliness in terms of pain, and some people even feel severe emotional pain physically as a pain in the chest or stomach.

There are significant overlaps in the brain structures involved in both sensations, causing a feedback loop between them. Feeling worse emotionally about physical pain will cause it to hurt more, while physical pain causes mental distress as long as it lasts.

But emotional pain is harder to treat than physical pain. For example, someone with a broken bone can receive medical treatment and take pain medication. On the flip side, a person who is cheated on by their partner can eventually heal, but there’s little that can be done externally to relieve their pain in the moment.

With emotional pain, relying on our incredible brain power to overcome what we’re feeling—while we work on healing—is usually the way to go!

Overcoming Pain: Tsutomu Yamaguchi’s Story

Stories of survival in the face of horrible physical and emotional pain demonstrate just how much power our brains really have! One such story is that of Tsutomu Yamaguchi of Nagasaki, Japan, who survived both atomic bombings at the end of World War II.

On August 6, 1945, when Yamaguchi was away from home on business in the small city of Hiroshima, the first of the two bombs was dropped. In the blast, his eardrums ruptured, and he received horrific burns. While the explosion knocked him unconscious, he woke up and managed to crawl out of the rubble alive.

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Even though he was wounded, Yamaguchi knew he had to get home to his family. He managed to board a train heading towards Nagasaki. When the train could go no further, he pushed onwards on foot despite his injuries.

On his journey through the bombed-out landscape, Yamaguchi encountered horrific scenes of destruction and suffering. It’s impossible to estimate the extent of the emotional and mental toll of the experience, but at the time, Yamaguchi had only one goal: getting home.

Which he did, the day before the second bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. Incredibly, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, and his wife and child, survived that one as well!

Overcoming Pain in YOUR Life

What can Tsutomu Yamaguchi’s story teach us about overcoming pain?

It seems silly to ask this since, thankfully, most of us will never experience the extent of physical and emotional pain he did.

But Yamaguchi’s experience shows that we have some control over how our brains process pain. He was able to overcome his physical and emotional anguish in part because of his mindset; getting back home to his family was more important than anything else.

In this section, we’ll go over some key methods you can use to overcome both physical and emotional pain in your daily life by making your brain work for you. Our brains are capable of so much, so we shouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of all they can do.

Since our brains are capable of putting pain “on the back burner” when something else is more important, we can learn to use that to our advantage in order to stay in control of our lives and stay on track to achieving our full potential. While pain is a powerful evolutionary mechanism, our brains are stronger by far!

Distract Yourself

Our brains are capable of subconsciously reducing the pain we feel when we are in a survival situation, but your conscious mind can help as well! Distracting yourself is a key way to help overcome pain.

For instance, parents will distract their small children while they’re getting their shots, and many people will try and watch a movie when they’re sick so that they’re not just laying there in pain and can instead focus on something else.

Distraction also works for emotional pain. A well-known example is taking up a new hobby or workout routine after a breakup.

Below are some tips for distracting yourself from physical and emotional pain in order to stay productive and on track towards achieving your goals. Remember, though, that not everything will work for everyone, or for every kind of pain! You can use any of the tips on this list, or simply use it as inspiration:

  • Listen to music—upbeat and motivational tracks rock when you need to push through pain to complete tasks!
  • Go for a walk if you can, or stretch—circulation helps!
  • If you don’t have anything specific to focus on, put on an interesting movie, documentary, or podcast in the background while you do chores or engage in a hobby.
  • Keep reminders of what you’re working towards in sight, so if you feel like giving up due to pain, you can get yourself back on track.
  • Try to keep your thoughts occupied by learning new things, thinking about loved ones, or imagining what it’ll be like when you achieve what you’re working towards!

Want to learn more about how YOU have the power to change the direction of your life? Don’t miss the essential virtual training session with John Assaraf, inventor of Innercise™—register today!

Change Your Mindset

The way you think about pain can change how intensely you perceive it. People with a lot of tattoos don’t find getting tattooed as scary or painful an experience as first-timers—but why?

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It’s not entirely because they’re used to the feeling and get better at hiding signs of pain, though that’s part of it!

People with many tattoos tend to have a different mindset about the process than people getting their first bit of ink. Those with experience know they can manage the pain because they have done so many times before, and they’re really looking forward to the finished result—a much more positive attitude than dwelling on how much it’s going to hurt!

Don’t believe this effect comes from our powerful brains? Believe it! Scientists have found evidence that people with positive, optimistic attitudes are better able to manage pain, have less psychological distress from pain, and even report less severe feelings of pain overall!

So, how can you be optimistic about the pain you’re feeling? Here are some ideas:

  • Remind yourself you’re capable of getting through what you’re feeling—you’ll be okay!
  • Congratulate yourself for getting tasks done in spite of the pain you’re feeling.
  • If you’re injured, try and think of the pain as localized— your arm is hurting, that’s all!
  • Smile! Even if you don’t feel happy, smiling can boost your mood.
  • Take other steps to raise your mood—call a friend to chat, go for a walk, or turn on your favorite song.

Cover All the Bases

The last two sections gave some advice for hacking your brain’s incredible power to overcome pain, but a great offense is weak without a great defence behind it, and overcoming pain is no different.

Your brain and your bodily systems are intrinsically connected. When something is wrong in one area, the others start to suffer.

For instance, people who are sleep deprived are less able to tolerate pain than people who’ve been sleeping normally. Therefore, it’s important to take care of yourself as well as you can in all areas, not just sleep.

Not only does pain make you feel psychological distress, but if you feel bad emotionally, you’ll also feel worse physically. Managing both areas matters.

Here are some things to think about with regards to self-care to make sure your brain has a great defense and offense against pain:

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  • Eat regularly. It doesn’t need to be three hot meals a day, but make sure you’re getting the daily calories and nutrients you need!
  • Drink water regularly. Carrying a water bottle around with you is great for this.
  • Make time to see and talk to family and friends who make you happy, and avoid toxic individuals.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Keep to a set bedtime and wake-up time, give yourself time to wind down in the evening, and don’t take your phone into bed with you!
  • Take a break from social media every now and then.
  • Stretch throughout the day, especially if you’re sitting most of the time!
  • Make sure you get out of the house regularly, even if it’s just for a walk!
  • Find a form of exercise you have fun doing, and do it regularly!

Want to learn more about how you can overcome whatever challenges you’re facing by harnessing your incredible brainpower? Register for virtual training with NeuroGym’s John Assaraf today!

Final Thoughts

What have we learned from the science behind how brains work, Tsutomu Yamaguchi’s incredible story of perseverance, and these science-backed tips for overcoming pain in our daily lives?

Our brains process pain in a fascinating way, and the overlap between how physical and emotional pain are processed is even more interesting. Physical pain causes psychological distress, but being in mental pain can also make physical pain feel worse.

While this can cause a vicious feedback loop that leaves you feeling worse at the end, it doesn’t have to. Our brains are capable of temporarily blocking or ignoring pain in the right situation. If physical and emotional pain is a hurdle for you to overcome, learning how to make these processes work for you can only be an advantage!

As a final note, not all pain is the same, and sometimes you can’t manage with just a change in mindset. If your pain is interfering with your day-to-day in a big way, there’s no shame in reaching out to a medical professional for help and advice.

The human brain is a powerful supercomputer, capable of amazing things! Want to learn more about how you can harness your brain power to boost your success? Register for on-demand training with John Assaraf now!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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