The negativity bias and pain - Pain 2 Possibilities

The negativity bias and pain

Pain and the brain are intricately linked.

Our perception of stimuli, out thoughts, behaviours and our emotions all have an impact on pain. In other words, what the brain perceives, the body feels. 

This is especially true for chronic pain where the brain transitions away from protection (acute pain) into over protection (chronic pain). It is what the oldest part of our brain (the amygdala) has done for thousands of years. And because we evolved for survival (and not happiness) we have what's called a negativity bias. This is where we tend to primarily focus on pain and problems in our lives.

When we focus on the pain, the pain becomes stronger creating this continuous loop of sympathetic dominance (think the 'fight or flight' response playing on repeat), which in turn makes the pain worse.

So what helps to unravel the loop of pain and focus?

There are a few things that need to be addressed, one of which includes finding safety in much of what you do. When the brain perceives activities as safe then it softens and the pain becomes less.

Secondly, gratitude and acknowledging small wins throughout the day helps prevent us from being overwhelmed with negativity. The glass is half full as well as half empty, but it's very hard to see unless we make an intentional effort.

Continual focus on the pain, as we see with chronic pain, can make it very difficult to 'see the forest through the trees'.  But acknowledeging the small wins throughout the day and being grateful for them can, over time and with repeated exposure, help the brain to signal the nervous system to 'soften' and be a little less vigilant.

In a recent study of 2,004 Americans, when asked about the impact of life’s little successes (a.k.a - small wins) they discovered that the average person has four small wins a day, or 1,460 every year. The study also found that four in five have become more conscious of their small wins since the start of the pandemic.

Small wins can include a wide array of possibilities such as finding a great parking spot close to the entrance, a 5 dollar bill in your pocket that you didn't know was there, or even a song playing on the radio that brings you back to a happier time. All of these instances help to flood the brain with feel good chemicals and respite from the negativity. Essentially it is a way of tapping into your own internal drug cabinet.

Just like a muscle becoming stronger with repeated exposure to strength training so too can your ability to recognize the wins of the day. It might not sound like a big thing to do but over time, it helps to shift our perspective away from the pain and intentionally towards the good that is happening all around you. It's also a great way to flood our brain with 'feel good' chemicals. 

However.....finding the wins can also be very difficult, especially if you live with chronic pain and/or unresolved trauma.

Because our brain has been designed for survival and thus the negativity bias, it seeks to 'protect', and in doing so, often misconstruing activities normally deemed as safe to be dangerous... even if they are not. So, course of action would be to work through the trauma with a therapist who specializes in trauma. The more safe you feel in your body, in your actions, the easier it is to acknowledge the wins.

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