Mental Habits and Chronic PainPeople faced with the day in day out experience of ongoing muscle and joint pain often develop mental habits to help them cope that can actually make their condition worse. Emotions such as anger, depression and/or making comparisons to how things used to be before the physical problem began, distracts the brain temporarily to help override current sensations of pain. While these mental habits can provide fleeting relief, they also serve to prolong chronic pain conditions by changing brain chemistry and altering the mind and body’s response to pain.

How Mental Habits Affect the Body

The Skeleton

Destructive mental habits or reactions to pain can make symptoms of physical pain worse by altering the musculoskeletal system. Strong negative emotions trigger the body’s flight or fight response and a person instinctually adapts protective postures and positions. You will recognize these postures from any time you have seen someone else angry or depressed. They assume protective positions by rounding their spine and shoulders and bringing their arms across their body. They also stick their head forward and clench their teeth to ward off potential stressful interactions with others. Their lower body responds by anteriorly tilting the pelvis and bringing their knees together to protect the genitalia. All of these changes to the skeletal system, if repeated time and time again, can exacerbate physical symptoms of pain by causing joint inflammation, disease and degeneration.

Muscles and Fascia

Soft tissue structures of the body are also adversely affected by destructive mental reactions to pain. Habitual responses in the brain affect muscles and fascia by restricting blood supply. This causes them to become rigid leading to even more tension and pain. These soft-tissue changes create problematic movement compensations throughout the body that can cause other structures to compensate.  In response to this added work, they become irritated and stressed leading to even more pain.

The Gut

When the brain is stressed or working extremely hard, as it does when a person is in pain, it requires a constant supply of glucose to work efficiently. The most readily available supply of glucose in our diet comes in the form of refined sugar. Therefore, people in chronic pain tend to crave sugar, which in turn irritates the gut, the pancreas, liver and kidneys all exacerbating the cycle of chronic pain.

Awareness is Key

Being aware of your destructive mental habits, and teaching your clients how to recognize their usual responses to the presence of pain, is the first step in overcoming recurring muscle and joint pain. Once you are conscious of these repeated patterns you can identify more positive mental habits (i.e., utilizing positive self-talk, reminding yourself that you are performing the necessary corrective exercises to get better, etc.) will help improve your mental habits and overcome this vicious cycle.