Pain and the Brain and Body

The body keeps the score. This is the title of a book by Bessel van der Kolk. I will try and explain how I see chronic pain. Chronic pain is different to acute pain.

Have a look at the picture of the brain again.

The yellow part of the brain is called the limbic system. I see this part as part of the body, not the brain. Unlike the frontal cortex it can’t think or plan or organize. It is purely reactive. The limbic system is there for your survival and the survival of the species.

Let’s say that you had a happy childhood but then encountered terrible trauma early adulthood, like domestic violence. The happier your childhood, the less prepared your limbic system and brain would be and the more trauma you would experience. Say you already have children and you have never had a job. You can’t just up and chuck. This is then trauma in the setting of inescapable shock. Worst kind of trauma is the kind you know you can’t escape from.

Now let’s say you’re one tough cookie – or puppy – or person – and you find a way to cope intellectually and spiritually with the trauma. But the Limbic system stays injured. The limbic system keeps bad memories right up close to your consciousness, so that if you think about them, it will be as if they are just happening. So you can intellectually think the trauma is long gone, but if you just start thinking, you will recognize how close it still is. This is part of comlplex PTSD. It influences your health, shortens your life, gives you physical pain because the body registers every piece of trauma in your body.

Your limbic system will make you feel arthritis pain, when healthy individuals with even worse arthritis don’t. It will make you feel pain with small muscle movements. Even pain when your posture is a bit off. So unlike the lucky 70% of us who don’t have that problem. It’s not about pain tolerance – those of you in chronic pain have enormous pain tolerance, unlike me, I have a high pain threshold – from childhood trauma where my limbic system FROZE – so I don’t feel pain – but I can’t tolerate pain – I’m a real baby when it comes to pain.

Much wiser men and women all over the world (much wiser than me) have spread the work of letting go – forgiveness – kindness and this is a wonderful tool to cope with emotional and physical pain. All too often – we are kind and forgiving of others, but hard on ourselves. We carry a sense of shame – blaming ourselves for the trauma that was inflicted on us. Maybe blaming ourselves that our children grew up in violent homes. That shame runs deep in the brain – the Limbic system.

To heal. we have to let go of shame and blame. Society and communities are responsible for health. We have to come together to help each other. First in taking responsibility that people are injured – as children and adults – in unkind uncaring ways we can act or ways that we don’t help each other in communities that are suffering. But first we need to heal ourselves.

Positivity exercise: Sit in a quiet place and rest your hands on your thighs and close your eyes. Imagine a time when you feel really good and relaxed. Maybe you’re stroking a pet. pull this image into your brain. Feel and see and hear as many details as you can to make the experience real. Then as you feel the experience, scan your body and feel your body relaxing and feel where the body tingles or warms up. And do this exercise often until your body starts to heal.

Do the Daily program – I like the first video in the morning and the last video of evening exercises at night. Learn to breath with your abdomen and time it so that the in breath is half the length of out breath.

Good luck


Leave a Reply