When your body seems to be falling apart…could your past have anything to do with your pain today?
When you live with pain that comes and goes and resolve one issue only to have another appear you might feel like you were given a bum body. As much as possible it is important to investigate why it might be that one’s body isn’t working so well. That is what we go to medical providers to help us with. Yet understanding your symptoms and physical pain and learning to manage it may mean looking at emotional pain you have experienced as well. As much as we may try to separate ourselves into physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive, parts, every part of us still effects the whole. We are complex integrated systems. By increasing our understanding of that, we can increase our self-compassion and find a little more balance, a little more comfort. You may discover that you have not been given a bum body but rather you were given a bum deal.
First let’s look at pain. Pain isn’t a preformed sensation arising from the body. Your brain is where pain is made. Sensation from the body is just one of the many factors involved in creating pain. The brain compares the information from nerve receptors in the body to past experiences and current emotional and physiological states, then the brain decides if pain would be a good way to encourage you to take action and protect yourself. Pain is all about protection, when the brain thinks the threat is really big the pain gets really big. That information from the nerve receptors activated by the splinter in your finger has to be evaluated in light of all the other factors your nervous system considers, including conscious and unconscious memory. (Moseley)
Bits of information from our external and internal environments get linked to other bits of information about pleasure and danger, forming associative networks. These networks fire and give us a super quick (unconscious) sense of whether we are in danger or not. When those networks fire again and again and again they become super fast, as do the networks that formed in really threating situations. This makes perfect sense to keep you safe. Your brain would rather be safe than sorry, so all the elements of the past danger don’t need to be present maybe just one important one, that you are highly sensitized to. Yes, you might feel ready to fight or flee but another option is to produce excruciating pain. It does seem odd but pain stops you so you can take care, take cover, get help, and stop being a part of whatever is going on. (Moseley)
What might be in your past that has formed really sturdy associate networks? Although there could be things you’d rather forget, your body remembers. We have learned from the studies of childhood experiences in individuals that the effects of trauma reach into the health and wellbeing of our adult lives. The ACEs study has given the medical profession a new way to look at the mind body relationship. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs). This study by Drs Felitti and Anda originally measured 10 types of childhood trauma: physical, sexual and verbal abuse, and physical and emotional neglect; and five types of family dysfunction – witnessing a mother being abused, a household member who’s alcoholic or drug dependent, who’s been imprisoned, or diagnosed with mental illness, or loss of a parent through separation, divorce or death.
Each type of trauma was given an ACE score of 1. Think of an ACE score as a short cut to acknowledge trauma without having to disclose it. A person who has been sexually abused and physically neglected, and grew up with an alcoholic mom and an incarcerated dad would have an ACE score of 4. There are many events that can adversely impact a child but this first study just used these ten.
The findings from the 17,000 mostly white, middle class, college educated, Kaiser-insured adults, showed that two-thirds experienced at least one type of severe childhood trauma. Most had suffered two or more. The study found that a person with four or more adverse childhood experiences is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, 10 times more likely to use injection drugs, seven times more likely to be an alcoholic, two-and-a-half times more likely to have a stroke, and twice as likely to have cancer. A person with an ACE score of 6 or more has a shorter life expectancy – by 20 years. The toxic stress caused by these traumas affects short and long-term health, and can impact every part of the body, leading to autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, as well as heart disease, breast cancer, lung cancer, etc. (Felitti)
A child’s developing nervous system that is always on the alert for danger is frequently flooded by stress hormones which are designed to help you fight or flee, but interfere with healthy development by taxing your adrenals, suppressing immune response, disrupting digestion etc. You can imagine how over many years these responses interfere with your body’s ability to return to homeostasis. And the developing nervous system will unconsciously be primed to expect danger. Remember the body is where we experience our unconscious learning. (Shore)
Sometimes the brain creates pain when there is no danger but it has evaluated all of the information from your body and from your past and believes you are in danger. Again this is an unconscious process. When pain is chronic we have developed a sensitized danger pathway, our brains respond by creating pain to try and get us to stop and become safe even when our thinking conscious brain says we’re okay. (Moseley)
How can we mitigate the toll from ACEs? Resilience, the ability to respond and return to balance can be rebuilt. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to remodel and renew, its how we can change our responses and patterns. Healing means learning on the level of our nervous system, that we are safe, and our body/mind doesn’t have to stay on high alert. (Porges, Shore) It might be a slow and at times a challenging process but worth every ounce of effort.
If you are interested in where any of this information came from I am happy to share that with you. If you would like to explore your neuroception of safety contact me, that is an important part of my work with clients.
You can find out your ACE score as well as many excellent articles on ACES and building resilience at ACEsTooHigh.com.