The mind is a powerful healing tool. So much so that your thoughts can convince your body how to respond. If you’ve suffered from pain, such as with a chronic condition, your brain may need rewiring to break old thought patterns and body responses. Learn the power the mind has when it comes to pain management and how to shift your symptoms.
Placebo for pain management
The way we think something will have an effect on our body, could actually influence it. In a clinical setting, a placebo is an inactive substance that seems similar to the active one being tested. This is helpful for the outcome of the study since it compares the actual medication or intervention to the placebo in order to test effectiveness without bias. For example, if a participant took a pill and knew the expected effect, they may convince themselves they are feeling better with the power of their mind.
This otherwise called the placebo-effect means that your mind can convince your body that a fake treatment is the real thing. It can be so powerful that a placebo can be just as effective as some traditional treatments. Placebos can’t actually change a medical condition, but they can change symptoms such as pain management, stress, and fatigue.
The way placebos work is still not fully understood, however it’s thought to influence brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters. When we think something will turn out a certain way, we can have a release in endorphins and dopamine, the reward chemical. As result, we ultimately may experience less pain and feel better.
Our thoughts also influence the pain we feel by means of anxiety or depression. Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion, or exaggerated or irrational thought pattern. This is when we assume the worst-case situation or believe that things are much worse than they actually are. It typically happens when there is limited information or “proof” of what we believe to be true. Even if the situation is not necessarily a crisis, we may still feel like we’re in the midst of one.
We all have negative thoughts from time to time, but for some people under certain conditions such as being stressed, the negative thinking can go out of control. It may become unrealistic given the current situation. This way of thinking can be damaging to our mental health and wellbeing because it can lead to high degrees of anxiety or depression.
Let’s explore a few examples. Say for instance you’re at work or school and make a mistake on an assignment. Catastrophizing may creep up when the conclusion is that you will get fired or fail your entire course. Or say you make one joke which offends a friend or partner, then stress about the fact that they will “never speak to you again”. Catastrophizing can also happen because of a chronic condition like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It can exacerbate the amount of pain you believe you feel.
It’s a fact that pain from a chronic condition can be extremely tough. When we have trouble looking at the positive side it could be pain catastrophizing. Pain catastrophizing is a pattern of negative real or anticipated pain thoughts. So regardless of whether or not the pain will happen, or be to a similar degree, we expect the worst.
Unfortunately, stress, anxiety, and depression have been shown to make pain worse. Anxiety for instance causes muscles to become more tense which can lead to more pain. In fact, researchers have discovered that pain shares some biological mechanisms with anxiety and depression.
Pain management: power of the mind
So how do we change these thoughts so we don’t experience as much pain and can help control conditions? By practicing healthy habits and shifting our thinking.
Cognitive behavioral thinking (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the best studied psychotherapies for treating pain. Using this method can help establish healthy coping skills to manage pain. It may help provide some relief from pain by changing the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to pain so you can ultimately function better. It can also change the way your brain responds to pain.
Mindfulness is another way to help decrease those anxious and uncontrollable thoughts. Mindfulness is awareness that happens through paying attention with purpose in the present moment. It helps with pain management by focusing on relaxing the body and noticing the breath.
In addition to the mind-based exercises there are various techniques that can help your body relax. This includes activities like progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, and tai chi. Walking or swimming is also an excellent way to boost mood and help decrease pain.
Nori for pain management
Practicing a comprehensive self-care routine is one of the best things you can do to help boost your brain placebo and feel better. This includes eating well, exercising, engaging in uplifting social activities, and meditating or practicing stress reduction.
This article has been written by Lisa Booth, registered dietitian and nutritionist, and co-founder of Nori Health. Content is based on her professional knowledge and our collection of 100+ scientific research study papers.