Your Brain on Pain

I get Real Simple magazine. It felt weird switching from Cosmo to Real Simple, but I suddenly felt like the magazine was being written more towards me, so it was obviously the right time to switch. It’s odd what things make us realize we’re growing up. Anyway, I don’t tend to write about what I read because the things I utilize from the magazine tend to be the organizing and cleaning tips (and there are SO MANY of those online). I do occasionally read stories that tug at my heart, but since I’ve started this blog I hadn’t read a story that felt like it was written specifically for me.

real simple august cover

Well, that all changed in the August 2015 issue (I just read it recently because I fell behind, haha). In the August issue, there is an article simply titled “Pain.” I figured it would probably focus on “normal” pain, for “normal” people… which is kind of true. However, it did actually discuss chronic pain. And there were some disturbing pieces of research mentioned in the article.

Before I discuss the article itself, here are the sources they use:

For some reason, I can’t find this article on Real Simple‘s website. I’m not planning on summarizing it in its entirety; I want to summarize the bits that are relevant to chronic pain and then comment on those.

real simple august pain article

The main thing is in the section called “The Mind-Body Problem.” Apparently, there have been imaging studies performed on people that suffer from chronic pain, and they’ve discovered some differences in brain structure between chronic pain sufferers and “normal” people. These changes are the most disturbing bit of the article for me:

  • “Chronic pain shrinks neurons in the brain’s grey matter – that is, the thinking, emotion, and motivational centers of the brain.” – Tor Wager
  • The 2004 Northwestern University study showed that people with chronic back pain (more than one year) had up to 11% less grey matter than their peers without chronic back pain.

I’ve always identified myself as being smart. To explain, I need to set aside my modesty. Normally, I hate to brag about anything (other than saying I was an absolutely adorable baby/toddler, I really think I was super cute), it makes me feel gross and like an undesirable person. So, putting that aside, I am very smart, and so is my sister. Both of us could read before I started kindergarten, and not just one word at a time, we could read basic sentences. I could write my first name, and I am pretty sure I could do really basic addition. Starting in kindergarten, I needed to get extra work from my teachers, or I would be disruptive (I got bored because stuff was too easy for me, and I got talkative and restless). I passed the G.A.T.E. (gifted and talented education) test in third grade, and started GATE in fourth grade (first year it was an option). In junior high, I was in all honors classes (which essentially put me a grade level ahead). In high school I did all honors classes, until I could replace them with AP (Advanced Placement; they are national honors classes with their own standardized tests) classes. Without even studying for the SAT at all (I didn’t know how to study and didn’t think I needed to), I got a 1980. I got a 31 on the ACT, and 7s on both the SAT and ACT essays. I got in to CO School of Mines without even trying (most of the students got a postcard asking them to fill out a quick online application, with no essay; so you got in on test scores), and then found out from tons of people that apparently it’s difficult to get into. Turns out, CSM is way harder to stay in (I repeated several classes multiple times, then dropped out when I realized I didn’t want to be any of the majors offered there). I adore doing logic puzzles, Sudoku, word searches, jigsaw puzzles, riddles, word puzzles, etc. I figure things out quicker than a lot of people, and I have a lot of general knowledge (lots of useless trivia too). I started getting bullied in elementary school, which is when I realized that I was smarter than the majority of my classmates. The bullying got so bad, that I started to question everything about who I was. The only thing I knew for sure, anymore, was that I was smart. I decided that was who I was; it became my identity. Unfortunately, doing that caused more issues for me (fear of both success and failure because I didn’t want to accidentally seem like I wasn’t as smart as I had identified as being). However, a major part of my self-identity is still that I am smart. That’s part of why I feel I have to get a degree of some sort, to prove it to everyone else (and to myself, since I’m going to have been going to school for 7 years to eventually get an associate’s). (This paragraph makes me feel creepy… ugh. I included all of the details and such because I wanted to show that I’m not saying I’m smart while just barely being average.)

Identifying as smart, makes the information from this study quite terrifying. Ever since the “brain fog” of fibro set in, I’ve been terrified. I feel as though I’m losing some of my intelligence. I just hoped that the brain fog was making my ADHD worse, so I couldn’t access my brain very well. However, it’s started to get worse. I’ll be talking, and the rest of my sentence will literally just vanish. I’ll try to figure out something that usually takes me no time, and it takes forever. The time it takes for me to finish Sudoku puzzles (I have an app that times you) is getting longer, and I’ve had to start doing easier ones. People will ask me questions that I know I know the answer to, but I can’t answer. The damage from all the bullying has made it so that I still don’t really know who I am, and I have panic attacks when things change the directly impact the way that I define myself. I am absolutely horrified that I’m losing the part of my identity that has never changed: being smart. It’s terrifying.

The article continues by saying that “thinning grey matter causes emotional distress, [and] difficulty thinking, moving, and sleeping.” Well, I’ve had those issues too. I’ve had insomnia and depression for a very long time. Insomnia was definitely present in high school, but I always had issues calming down my brain to go to sleep (I would make up stories in my head for hours because I was bored but knew I needed to lay there quietly). The depression came on about 4th grade. I’ve pretty much always had ADHD. I know a new article has just come out saying that “ADHD is fictional” but let me tell you, it isn’t. I literally have to fight my brain into focusing on something. If I don’t have background noise, of a slightly distracting manner, I will always lose that fight. I now have severe brain fog, where some days I struggle to comprehend simple questions (like, what my mom’s maiden name is, or what my favorite X is). Despite Pilates, I always feel like I’m just ever so slightly off balance. Sometimes it seems as though I even forget how to move to do simple things (like, removing a shirt, or tying something, or using a fork and knife). My emotional state has been ridiculous. I’ve always been passionate and the “wear your heart on your sleeve” type of person. But, lately, I feel unhinged. I’m far more depressed than usual, but I think part of that is probably because I just came off my antidepressant (every time I come off of it, I end up in a downswing for a brief period of time). I go from perfectly fine, or even giddy/elated, to full on primal rage. I will want nothing more than to cuddle with Dan, then he’ll say one thing that shouldn’t even bother me, and I feel white hot anger and we get in a fight because I can’t control it. I suddenly will have panic attacks paired with frustration that end up having me dissolve into a puddle of tears and hyperventilation (like, I freaked out at 11pm about the stairs not being vacuumed and physically injured myself trying to do it). Suddenly, I’ll switch from a normal mood to having my eyes well up and wanting to bawl my eyes out. When these freak outs are happening, it’s like I’m simultaneously trapped in my body and completely removed from it. There will be a little voice in my head yelling at me to stop it, and realizing how mean I am being or how uncalled for my actions are. But at the same time, I’m completely trapped by the sudden emotional freak outs. I can’t help what is happening. Things start to come out of my mouth that are the most grossly exaggerated versions of minor events ever. Sometimes, I will start or arrive at actual truths, but most of the time my mouth just says things. Sometimes, a part of me just wants to lash out and hurt the person closest to me, which is always Dan 😥 I hate hurting him, and I don’t know where that urge could be coming from. My patience is also gone. I have absolutely no patience for anything at all anymore. I used to be able to put up with a lot of stuff, and now I can barely put up with daily life. When I was in CA this summer, I was frustrated with how things were going while trying to get my mom’s website and blog, and her Etsy shop going. When we went to my grandparents’ house, who I am extremely close to and adore, I ended up snapping at my grandparents. It was a bad enough snap that Grama actually said “we’re old, sometimes you have to have patience.” I was mortified. I have never done that before, and I hadn’t even really noticed until she said that. Dan looked at me like I was a completely different person. It was awful. These changes are very scary for me.

Then the article goes on to mention how chronic pain is far more common for women. This isn’t a surprise to me, because any article I’ve read about chronic pain conditions says they are more common for women.

Next, it starts to talk about how to help reduce/eliminate pain and treat negative effects of pain. No surprise, the first thing it says is “don’t tough it out,” take the pills. I don’t always do that, because my pain is so often here that I don’t want to exist on pain pills; I don’t want to become Dr. House (from TV). If pain isn’t gone after two weeks, see a doctor. It also stresses the importance of a pain management doctor for chronic pain. I thought it was a specific title, but it isn’t. Turns out, Dr. Spencer is my pain management doctor (that’s what he does for me) after all. If pain still isn’t disappearing, try daily prescription medications for management.

The next bit of the article gives six different mind-centered activities to help with pain and the ill effects:

  • Believe that you’ll feel better soon. (Do not let yourself fall into the “I’m never going to feel better” down spiral.)
  • Consider therapy. (Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength.)
  • Reframe your pain. (Example: Try transforming the stinging pain of a burn into a warm, tickling sensation. This won’t make the pain disappear, but it can lessen the emotional impact of it and make the pain less severe.)
  • Distract yourself. (Do things that require lots of concentration. The article recommends mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates. Mindfullness practices can even counter the negative brain changes from pain.)
  • Meditate. (Try the Calm app I’ve been using! It’s amazing, and this has really been helping me. The article says that it has been shown to reduce pain intensity by 40% and emotional distress due to pain by 57%, which makes it more effective than morphine.)
  • Get stuck. (Accupuncture. I will not be trying this one, I am too freaked out by needles, and I have had acupuncture needles placed in me that I can feel the pain from for hours. If you’re like me, I’ve heard that acupressure massage can have similar positive benefits.)

This is the first time I have definitely heard anyone say that chronic pain can “make you dumb.” I had long suspected that the brain fog from these conditions wasn’t just ADD type confusion, but was more of an actual fuzziness of knowledge. Sometimes, it feels to me as though I’m trying to view my brain through a steamed up mirror. I can’t stand it. Grey matter reduction scares me even more because Alzheimer’s and dementia run strongly through my family (and this scares Dan a lot, about me, too). I’m just glad that mindfulness and meditation have been shown to help rebuild grey matter, and that doing the puzzles that I enjoy can also help. I’ve been keeping a close eye on this kind of news lately, so I’ll be sure to fill you in if I find anything.

Do you have any advice for rebuilding grey matter? Preferably without having to take medication (traditional pharmaceuticals or holistic), though if you have actual scientific research (I have a science based mind, it’s pretty much the only way I feel a method is valid) to back up holistic approaches I am definitely open to learning about them. Any puzzles you know of that really help? Any good puzzles you’d like to recommend? Any meditations, or anything, that you find particularly enjoyable?

I don’t get any compensation for linking or promoting anything. All links are so that you can get more information or read my previous posts!

5 thoughts on “Your Brain on Pain

  1. Pingback: Your Brain on Pain | Fyribooks

  2. I don’t believe that long term pain makes you less intelligent. My own severe pain during flare ups renders me almost speechless, and I’ve trouble remembering simple things…but that is because the pain is so high and it needs addressing. When it’s more moderate I don’t have those problems. Have you tried crafting, just for fun? My sewing is like a kind of meditation. I think high anxiety triggers flare ups. I’m literally crippled with pain and when my anxiety is high I’m in more pain and exhausted. Please don’t worry. Hugs.


    • It probably doesn’t actually take away intelligence itself, but I think it makes it harder to access. The brain is tricky like that. I have these issues when I’m not feeling pain too, unfortunately 😥
      I paint… though sometimes I freak out about messing up, so I can have a lot of difficulty starting. I want to start sewing, and I’ve been trying to learn to crochet. I’m also a photographer (art, nature, macro). I also love coloring (very meditative for me). I am getting into Zentangle too, which is interesting. Unfortunately, I’m really bad at managing my time, so I don’t always give myself the time to do these things on top of my “musts.” Sounds like I need to do a better job though, sounds like it really helps you!

      Thank you for the hugs! Hugs back!

      Liked by 1 person

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