Thoughts. Those incessant, chemical reactions in the brain. The pictures in our head. The stories we tell ourselves. The imaginations of the mind. Learn how to calm the mind in order to get thoughts under control, specifically you live in chronic pain and anxiety.
Thoughts are one of the defining factors of being human. We all have them. They range in quality and quantity. They can be pleasant and fantastical like the ones we recall as children. They can be worrisome and uncomfortable like the uncertainty we have about the future. It’s safe to say that every person on the planet is aware, to some degree, of their thoughts.
What are they?
Thoughts are subjective ideas, imaginations, and assumptions, essentially creative stories that we make up in our mind. They are usually based in the past and future and rarely depict what is happening in the present moment. Science still cannot give us a definitive answer to what thoughts really are and where they come from. They continue to be a mystery, from a neuroscientific point of view, but we don’t have to have an exhaustive explanation of what they are in order to become more aware of how they impact us on a daily basis.
Sometimes thoughts are mere recollections or memories of events and experiences that have happened to us in the past. Often times our thoughts are comprised of manufactured scenarios of the future, imaginative ideas that are not based on facts. Take a moment right now to contemplate all the future-based thoughts you have on a daily basis. From the moment you wake up in the morning, your mind is inundated with thoughts about what is yet to occur.
Harmless thoughts about the not-so-distant future, like what errands you have to run or what’s for dinner, are common and don’t typically cause a lot of stress. However, when you project into the possible future and think about all the potential challenges of living in chronic pain, setbacks and struggles that life has yet to throw your way, well that can leave you feeling a lot of worry, anxiety, even fear.
How do your thoughts FEEL?
Thoughts and emotions are not mutually exclusive. They usually show up together, in fact, it’s very rare that you can think something without it having some kind of emotional impact on you. What we think is connected to how we feel. In other words, our thoughts create strong feelings, our strong feelings create unsettling thoughts, and both are experienced at the physical level.
For example, let’s say I’m stuck in a low paying, boring job that I despise. Every day I go to work I am riddled with stress and anxiety because I feel trapped in a job that I absolutely hate. Those anxious feelings in the pit of my stomach breed worrisome thoughts about the future. I think to myself, “I can’t keep doing this stupid job, I can’t keep feeling this way” but I have bills to pay and mouths to feed so I try to shut those thoughts up and ride it out. Every day is the same dance, anxious and unsettled feelings of unhappiness in my gut coupled with defeated thoughts of being stuck in my minimum wage, crappy job. So you see, thoughts and feelings often go hand and hand.
The Mind-Body Connection
Sometimes our thoughts can be so troubling that they can cause sudden, extreme physical sensations in our body. Often we are unaware of the mind/body connection, not paying attention to how thoughts trigger feelings, and the onset of sudden bodily sensations can cause even more panic. Here’s a scenario to demonstrate what I’m talking about:
Imagine you are sitting in your office and suddenly your phone rings. It’s your boss. He seems unhappy. There’s something in the tone of his voice that is making you uneasy. He says four unnerving words, “Come to my office”. You hang up the phone. All of a sudden, the thoughts come streaming in. Why does he want to see me? What is this about? Why does he sound unhappy, is it something I did? And then, the emotions; worry, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, shame. Next, your body starts to react. Your heart begins to race, your palms get sweaty, your breathing becomes heavy, your stomach is in knots, you feel warm, out of breath, like your body is trying to sabotage you. You contemplate making a mad dash to the elevators and getting the hell out of there.
Take a moment to really feel this. And if the example doesn’t relate to you specifically, think of a time when your thoughts caused an extreme physical response.
Did you feel it? The feeling in the pit in your stomach. The tightness in your chest. The jitteriness in your limbs. You can see in this scenario how within a matter of seconds we can go from thoughts to emotions to body sensations. And what triggered these very real feelings in the body? A manufactured, uncorroborated, conjectured thought. No facts. No evidence that something bad is going to happen. Just your own ideas in your head about what your boss might want from you. Are you seeing the pattern? Thoughts are deeply connected to feelings and it is this relationship the can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering.
We have all experienced the gut-wrenching feeling of stress, anxiety or panic at some time in our life. Whether it was waiting for the results of a medical test, anticipating stage-fright just before you deliver your work presentation, or predicting a negative outcome right after a terrible job interview.
This type of mind-body connection can be viewed from a top-down perspective; your thoughts and emotions in you mind (top) are causing physical sensations in the body (bottom). But the mind-body connection can also work in reverse; body sensations can send signals upward to the brain, causing stressful thoughts and emotions. For example, if you have ever suffered a panic attack (and I hope you never do) you might notice that physical sensations manifest quickly. Perhaps it feels like tightening in the chest, difficulty breathing, dizziness or jitteriness. These physical sensations will send a message to the brain that something is terribly wrong and you need to pay attention, which in turn causes panicked thoughts and worried feelings.
Things can get even more complicated for those who suffer from chronic pain or illness. When chronic pain is relentless and unmanaged, the mind will constantly interpret the pain as a threat to survival, causing the patient to be in a steady state of fight or flight and increasing the feeling of anxiety. Even if the pain has nothing to do with any structural damage to tissues, your brain will perceive the bottom-up pain as a threat and therefore cause you a lot of emotional unease.
No matter which way the signal is traveling, it is clear that what you think, how you feel, and where you place your attention, will absolutely play a role in your physical wellbeing. Until you learn how to calm the mind, you can’t learn how to calm stress. Your mind, your chronic pain, your anxiety, and your stress are all interconnected.
Thoughts aren’t real
Despite how intense they can make us feel, thoughts are harmless. They can’t actually hurt us in the physical world. Even the most terrifying thought, like a zombie apocalypse, can’t cause bodily harm. Like a fictional movie projected on a screen, thoughts can create feelings within us but they are not factual representations of reality.
In other words, thoughts are not actual, tangible, real life experiences. They are pictures in our head that have been influenced by our own perceptions, judgments, and interpretations of the world. Yet, we can get so entangled in them that the lines between reality and fantasy can get blurred.
Mindfulness teaches us to observe our thoughts in a non-judgmental way. Here is a strategy to help you watch your thoughts.
Find a quiet place: take some time to be alone in a comfortable and relaxing environment. It’s important to give yourself some time to turn your attention inward and observe what is going on inside you in order to calm the mind.
Take some deep breaths: 3-5 cycles of deep, diaphragmatic breathes will help calm the mind, allowing you more opportunity to observe your thoughts in a non-judgmental way.
Allow thoughts to come up: let your thoughts rise to the surface but imagine they are like clouds in the sky. You cannot touch them, grab them, attach to them, only watch them as they come in and out of your consciousness.
Notice feelings: when a particular thought comes up, how does it feel physically in the body? Do you feel tense, tight, jittery, heavy, tingly, etc. Start to place the sensation in the body.
Let them go: since thoughts are not real, allow them to pass through you. Like clouds in the sky, they float by with effortless ease.
Although this may seem challenging to do, practicing mindful observation of thoughts can give you a sense of control. You may not be able to control what you think, but you can control how to calm the mind and how you respond to what you think. Gradually and with patience, you will get better at observing the connection of anxiety and chronic pain and at observing thoughts with the ultimate goal of learning how to calm the mind.