Our nervous systems are beautiful, dynamic, learning, adapting machines! Except they’re far more elegant and impressive than any machine (so scratch that analogy and just keep the adjectives).
Without the need for any conscious control, our nervous systems keep our body running smoothly — our heart beats, blood flows, the immune system fights off invaders, chemical reactions turn food into energy, and on and on. When something is amiss, our nervous systems take the steps necessary to get us to safety, whether that means fighting off an attacker, running away, or forcing us to freeze in the hopes the threat will eventually just go away.
Moreover, just like our conscious minds, our nervous systems learn from experience. So if your nervous system reacted to a threat and got you out of danger in the past, that’s the reaction it will default to the next time it thinks a similar threat has arisen. But, again, just as with our conscious minds, if new information comes to light that indicates that a previous reaction wasn’t the best reaction, then our nervous systems can update their responses.
So what does that mean for chronic pain or chronic illness? It means that many of our chronic symptoms are not actually occurring because something is wrong with us, but rather, our nervous systems learned to manifest those symptoms
for a variety of reasons to help us avoid some real or perceived threat.
For example, if you injured your knee playing sports, you and your nervous system learned to be much more aware of twinges in your knee later on, even if those twinges don’t pose the threat that the original injury did. Because our systems can learn and change, we can update our nervous system’s response to stimuli that are incorrectly perceived as threats so that we stop having symptoms.
In my case, I found that pain and symptoms arose for two reasons: It was an automatic response to some stimulus, or it was an indication that something needed my attention so that I could better deal with the perceived threat. For me, the latter seemed to be the case more often than not, especially early on, but I’m going to touch on the former first.
I’ve seen a lot of reports of people recovering from chronic pain and chronic illness just by retraining their brains. I’m super jealous of them because this seems to be faster and easier than my recovery. But I’m also skeptical that just retraining my nervous system would have been sufficient for my case. More on that below. First, a quick overview of *my understanding* of how this works.
Let’s say someone blows out their knee running or playing soccer or maybe they injured their back in a car accident. When they go to the doctor, they might be told something like “the injury is unlikely to fully recover,” or that “they’ll be more prone to future injuries.” Or maybe the doctor tells the person they’ll be fine, but in the person’s effort to look up recovery information online, they come across horror stories of people not recovering and they’re introduced to support groups for people who have had chronic pain ever since they had a similar injury.
In all of these situations, our brains and nervous systems learn that they need to be more vigilant about pain in those locations. When a small twinge occurs, the person backs off whatever they’re doing to make sure they don’t re-injure the spot. With that reaction comes fear, and that fear acts to reinforce our brain’s belief that the twinge was a problem. Over time—or maybe quite quickly—the twinge may become pain or more severe pain because the nervous system now believes that the sensation is a problem, and it needs to get the person to stop doing whatever activities are triggering the issue.
As the nervous system becomes more aware of problems in that location of the body, it may become even more sensitive to sensation there, and pain will become more frequent and severe, as the person becomes hypervigilant about every sensation that may arise. On top of that, family members, friends, coworkers, doctors, and the internet are probably all reinforcing the person’s nervous system with messages about how important it is to be careful and how so many other people also suffer from chronic pain associated with similar causes. It’s also possible that once the nervous system begins to react to sensations in one location in the body, it may also begin to react to similar sensations in other parts of the body as well, triggering chronic pain in locations that had never been injured to begin with.
To fix this, the person needs to retrain their nervous system to believe that they’re safe and to not react with fear to every little sensation.
I really liked the work Alan Gordon has done in this space, and I found it critical to helping me recover. His podcasts are free, his book was affordable, and he was part of a really interesting study that found over 60% of patients were pain free or nearly pain free after 4 weeks of brain retraining, as opposed to 20% who improved with a placebo and on 10% who improved with traditional medical care.
In my example above, I talk about someone who suffered a physical injury. The same twinge-fear-pain-fear cycle can also apply to other symptoms. I found this to be the case with my allergies. I used to get yearly allergies, and I’d suffer from chronic sinus issues. (My nose would literally run nonstop for 2-5 hours, and I would have to sit up somewhere with tissue shoved up my nostrils, replacing the tissues every couple of minutes. I could nearly go through an entire box of tissue or roll of toilet paper in that time. It was gross.) In the past, a twinge in my nose or an itch in my eye always signaled the start of bad symptoms about to start. The allergies were traditional, seasonal allergies, and the sinus issues were often associated with a histamine/food intolerance or exercise intolerance.
This past year, with knowledge about the twinge-fear-symptom cycle, every time those twinges occur, I’d remind myself that it was just a twinge, it didn’t mean anything, and I was fine. If it was a really severe twinge and I was second-guessing my reassurances, I’d tell myself that I could always take an allergy medication if things got really bad, but that I was confident that wasn’t necessary, and I should give myself a little bit of time before worrying. Then I’d let myself get distracted by whatever I was doing, and forgot about the twinge.
That worked every single time. I’ve had no allergies or nasal/sinus issues in over a year, and that’s after having fairly consistent issues for decades. In this case, it seemed to have been an entirely learned response to those twinges, and it didn’t seem to be related to the emotional work. (Please do not try this with anaphylactic responses.)
I also want to highlight this example because it was a learned immune response, with real, physical symptoms that could, in no way, be construed as “in my head” (notwithstanding all the snot coming out of my head). I also had real, physical tests showing all the foods, animals, grasses, trees, dust mites, etc. that I was allergic to.
My hypothesis is that if the nervous system’s fear response is triggered solely by the symptom, as above, then simply retraining the brain is probably all you need to recover from your chronic condition, but if the fear response is triggered by something else (say, repressed thoughts and emotions), then I believe that the person probably needs to address the source of the fear in addition to retraining the brain that the symptoms aren’t necessary.
With the allergy example, I was scared of the nose twinge, and my nervous system’s learned response to that fear was to trigger a deluge of snot. I just had to retrain my nervous system not to respond with fear to the twinge, and thus no snot. But other symptoms are multi-layered.
My migraines, for example, were triggered by an intense fear of intense emotions, and then exacerbated by a fear of the pain. I followed every tip I came across to retrain my brain not to have migraines, but nothing helped until I started to recognize and address both the really strong emotions I was repressing and my fear of those emotions. Only then could I start to retrain my nervous system to not be afraid of and to not need the pain.
Now, if I start to feel pain on the left side of my head, I can say “Oh. I’m angry for x,y, or z reason. I know I’m angry and it’s okay to be angry. I don’t need to feel this pain because I’m aware of the anger.” Mostly that works.
If it doesn’t work, it’s because there’s an emotion that I’ve repressed that I’m not aware of. At that point, I need to go back to the journal and/or meditate to figure out what’s going on so that I can try to address it.
One other important aspect I found with my personal brain-retraining work: I had to do the work as soon as the first twinge began. If I didn’t catch it early, then the symptom would flare up and my nervous system would be in a complete freeze response. Once that happened, the only thing that helped was time, deep relaxing, and regularly reminding myself that whatever was happening to me was okay just as it was and I didn’t need to feel scared. I have yet to find anything else that helps once a symptom flares up.
One final note: it’s entirely possible that if I’d paid the many hundreds of dollars to try out one of the brain retraining programs, I would have been able to fix the multi-layered symptoms in less time and without doing the emotional
work. I’d love to hear from other people about their experiences with these programs so that I can get a better sense of whether that’s possible.
That said, as a result of the JournalSpeak, I like myself so much more now than I did before I got sick. I feel more whole and more confident, and I’m getting better at defending and taking care of myself. I don’t think the brain-retraining alone would have had that effect, so even if I could have gotten rid of many of my symptoms faster, I’m still happy that I did the emotional work, and I will continue to do the emotional work.