Pain is an inescapable part of life that affects us all. While it is often thought of as purely physical, pain also has a powerful emotional component. The memories and feelings of our past can greatly influence how we experience pain, even when there is no clear physical cause. Pain can strike unexpectedly and deeply impact our mental and emotional well-being.
The mind and the body influence each other continuously, and the brain controls nearly all of our biological functions – including pain. Mental health conditions and chronic pain share the same neural pathways in our brain, actively influencing one another.
When the body is injured or unwell, we are more likely to be depressed and anxious. Being in pain is never pleasant, and when our body is under stress, so is our brain. Studies estimate that 35% to 45% of people with chronic pain also experience depression.
On the other hand, when people struggle with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they are more likely to suffer from unexplained aches and pains or digestive issues.
Chronic pain also has a close relationship to the mind-body connection. We can worry about our pain returning at any moment, and it is easy to become hypervigilant; however, this causes the brain to intensify the physical symptoms. When we experience pain, our fear and anxiety are heightened, and we find ourselves stuck in a fear-pain cycle.
Our previous experiences can also reinforce the mind-body connection, especially regarding pain. For example, if you have cut yourself in the past and the wound got infected, the next time you cut yourself, it can be excruciating. As your brain associates the injury with intense pain, even a small cut can cause it to jump to extreme conclusions and send alert signals to prevent further injury.
However, we can harness our mind-body connection and use it as a powerful tool for positive change. Studies have found a strong correlation between positive thinking and stress reduction, and globally, thousands of people are reaping the benefits of mindfulness to improve their physical and mental health.
The nervous system spans the entire body, playing a role in movement, sensation, pain, and the mind-body connection. Your nervous system is made of two main parts:
- The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord.
- The peripheral nervous system (PNS), which includes nerves all over your body.
Our brain is always the source whenever we experience a pain signal, even without a clear physical cause. In a two-way system, it takes the messages sent from the PNS and sends back a reaction in response to different stimuli. Think about what happens when you prick yourself on a thorn – you jerk your hand away. That’s the PNS alerting the CNS and your body reacting.
An overactive nervous system is a substantial contributing factor to chronic pain. The autonomic nervous system, a part of your PNS, splits into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system responds to pain and controls the fight or flight response when we are faced with a traumatic situation. The parasympathetic nervous system controls our rest and digest system, helping us to relax and calm pain signals.
Chronic pain causes the autonomic nervous system to become stuck in the fight-or-flight response, amplifying the nervous system’s signals. Essentially, it changes how the nervous system works – it is constantly stimulated, making it overly sensitive and enhancing the pain.
We can work with the mind-body connection to alleviate pain and become more present in our bodies. There are several interventions that we can use to enhance this connection:
- Mindfulness – mindful practices, including yoga and meditation, are great for your mental and physical health. It involves focusing and being present in the moment and accepting thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Taking just a few minutes a day to sit quietly and be present can promote relaxation and has been proven to reduce chronic pain. Many forms of mindfulness encourage us to assess what is happening within our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is also associated with decreased activity in the thalamus, inhibiting pain signals from reaching areas of the brain associated with thinking and therefore lowering our perception of pain.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT is a popular form of treatment that focuses on our thoughts and behaviors in response to pain. It encourages people to interrupt negative thoughts and stop the cycles contributing to low mood and anxiety. CBT encourages people to think more positively during a pain flare-up instead of thinking negatively about it, which can, in turn, help with pain management.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy – accepting pain can seem counterintuitive, as more often than not, we just want it to go away. However, accepting it can help people manage physical pain and negative emotions. Accepting pain can help relax the nervous system, which helps to lower stress hormones in the body and possibly contributes to reducing pain.
- Biofeedback – biofeedback is a modality that allows us to tune into our biological processes, such as heart rate and breathing. Learning more about these processes can enhance the mind-body connection and help us control them, such as using deep breathing to engage with the parasympathetic nervous system, tackle stress, and reduce pain.
While pain is created in the brain and (in the case of chronic pain) the nervous system, it is possible to use them both to alleviate pain. These techniques, among others, can help to soothe the overactive nervous system and enhance our mind-body connection.
Learn more about pain and the mind-body connection at The Master Series: Pain Edition. Join our speakers over two days as they explore the world of pain, trauma, and new ways to address it and earn up to 9 CE/CPD credits.
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