When you experience pain — whether it is acute or chronic — your first thought might be that it’s due to a physical injury or disease. However, that doesn’t have to be the case — in fact, your mind can largely be responsible for chronic pain. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the main culprits, and up to 30 percent of chronic pain sufferers also have this condition.
Table of Content
|1.||What Is PTSD?|
|2.||Relationship Between Pain and PTSD|
|3.||Why Emotional Trauma Causes Pain|
|4.||What Different Types of Pain Mean|
|5.||Treating Chronic Pain by Resolving Emotional Trauma|
If dealing with the cause cures the symptom, does that mean that resolving emotional trauma would ease your chronic pain? Logically, it should, but let’s explore this question in more detail.
What Is PTSD?
To put it simply, PTSD is a disorder that often occurs after you’ve experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. A serious accident, war, assault, natural disasters — these are only some of the things that can trigger it.
PTSD comes with a whole host of symptoms and behaviors. But typically, telltale signs are nightmares and flashbacks about the event that traumatized you. Other than that, you may experience detachment and estrangement from others, as well as feelings of anger, sadness, and guilt.
These symptoms don’t go away on their own — as long as there is any lingering emotional trauma, they will remain. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed since the event; when you encounter a trigger, you’ll be taken back to it.
Relationship Between Pain and PTSD
The relationship between PTSD and chronic pain is quite complicated. Even when you feel like you’ve processed the emotional impact of a traumatic event, your body could still be suffering the consequences.
Usually, that is a sign that you haven’t quite gotten over it as much as you’d like to think. In fact, your body is a great indicator of whether you need to further work through your emotions.
When you’re facing a traumatic event, your body and its nervous system go into the so-called survival mode. Your adrenal glands start producing high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is responsible for your “fight or flight” response.
Cortisol increases your blood pressure and heart rate, while simultaneously slowing down your digestive and immune systems. That way, it puts your body in a state of high alert. Once the stressful event is over, cortisol levels naturally drop, and the body slowly goes back to normal.
However, if you’re suffering from PTSD, your body remains almost permanently stuck in this heightened survival mode. Even when there is no danger, cortisol is still being released, elevating blood pressure and damaging your immune system. This state of distress hurts your body, but it also prevents it from healing, causing stress pain.
Reliving Past Trauma
Typically, a traumatic event won’t define you — after a while, you’ll be able to go back to your old self. However, you might lose all your stress coping mechanisms. Any kind of pressure could trigger old trauma and cause you to relive it once again.
Unfortunately, reliving traumatic events doesn’t only stress the mind — it also puts a lot of pressure on your body. Due to stress, your muscles become tense and constricted, and after a while, fatigued. Eventually, the fatigue will start manifesting as chronic muscle pain.
Aside from that, if the trauma you experienced involves any physical injuries, you could feel as if you’re wounded all over again. After all, physical injuries don’t only scar the body, but also the psyche — so when you relive the past, they will be quite vivid. That only contributes to chronic pain and prolongs it.
One of the most common causes of PTSD and chronic pain is an unhappy and difficult childhood. In fact, children who live in unstable homes, experience the death of a family member, or suffer through any sort of abuse are more likely to have chronic pain as adults.
The reason for that is simple — children who grow up in such environments are under constant pressure. Usually, they have no parental or adult figure to calm them down or teach them how to cope with it, so their stress responses tend to be heightened.
Unfortunately, since their brains are still developing, all that stress damages neural connections, leaving a permanent mark. So even if as adults, they don’t consciously remember their childhood trauma, their brains are still wired to overreact to stress.
It may surprise you that trauma leaves a real imprint on DNA and cellular memory. Genes remember everything you went through, even when your mind no longer does. The body keeps a record of emotional trauma and tailors its response to stress based on that. That’s why even the smallest stressors can cause flashbacks and pain.
Why Emotional Trauma Causes Pain
Research on PTSD and pain has shown something quite interesting — to your brain, emotional and physical injuries are indistinguishable.
To illustrate this, let’s take a look at this 2011 study. The participants had to look at photos of their ex-partners while getting their brains scanned. Interestingly enough, research showed that the areas of the brain responsible for physical pain lit up. Basically, physical pain and emotional distress use the same neural pathways, so it’s no wonder that your body can confuse the two.
This connection between pain and trauma is sometimes called a mind-body syndrome, or neural circuit disorder. The more emotional trauma you suffer, the stronger the link between physical and mental pain will be. Eventually, even the smallest stressors will cause chronic pain.
What Different Types of Pain Mean
The pain you feel isn’t random — it can mean different things depending on its location. Pay attention to what kind of pain you’re experiencing, and it may give you a clue as to what is bothering you. Here are a few examples:
- Migraines and headaches. Typically, feeling the pressure, throbbing, or aches in your head indicates that you’re tense. Try to do something relaxing in order to alleviate it.
- Neck pain. Someone might have wronged you, and you’re unable to forgive them. Working through these feelings of resentment could soothe the pain.
- Shoulder pain. You’re likely carrying a heavy emotional burden on your back.
- Upper-back pain. You may feel that you lack emotional support or that you’re unloved.
- Lower-back pain. Similarly, you may feel that you lack emotional support, but also financial. You might be having some trouble with money as well.
- Elbow pain. If you’re reluctant to change in your life, this may surface as elbow pain.
Of course, all of these aches can have purely physical causes. But if they last for a while and you can’t seem to figure out why it would be wise to pay attention to your mental health.
Treating Chronic Pain by Resolving Emotional Trauma
Now that we’ve established a link between emotional trauma and chronic pain, it’s time to see how treating one can help with the other. Obviously, the root cause of chronic pain is emotional trauma, so you’d need to tackle it first. But don’t forget — chronic pain is a stressor too, so it’s important to try and alleviate it while dealing with its cause.
Diagnosing a Neural Circuit Disorder
To diagnose a neural circuit disorder, you have to visit both a physician and a therapist. They will first check whether there is anything physical that could be causing your symptoms, but if there isn’t, they’ll take a look at your psychosocial history.
Your psychosocial history is a detailed overview of your social well-being and mental health. Using this tool, the practitioner can determine whether the onset of pain lines up with some traumatic event from your past. If it does, there is a great likelihood that it is precisely the cause of chronic pain.
Once you receive your diagnosis, you’ll be ready to start both psychotherapy and physical therapy. These two are typically used together to treat patients with emotional trauma and chronic pain.
Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy
Facing your trauma and openly talking about it is perhaps the best way to move on from it. It’s not easy by any means, but with the guidance of a therapist, it yields great results. That’s why Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy (EAET) is so commonly used.
A typical session lasts around 90 minutes. During that time, a therapist guides you through a roleplay activity in which you reenact your trauma. However, this time you get to make a new ending for it. With the help of your therapist, you find the language and the voice you need for that. The point of this exercise is to become aware of the pain that your trauma is causing you and take some power away from it.
Treatment time varies depending on a lot of factors — the severity of your trauma, how good you are at expressing yourself, and how willing you are to work on it. A lot of people opt out of the treatment because facing their trauma is simply too overwhelming.
And while it is true that it can be too much to handle, the benefits are certainly enormous. You have to face your trauma — but you do so in a safe environment, with support from your therapist. This process eventually reverses the neural pathways linking your trauma and pain and creates new, healthy ones. At the end of the treatment, you’ll be able to think of your trauma without feeling any stabs of pain.
Pain Coping Techniques
Some therapists take a gentler approach, and instead of asking you to face your trauma, they teach you to cope with the pain itself. To do that, they use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).
The purpose of both of these techniques is to teach patients to become aware of their feelings — especially negative ones. Then, they should accept those negative emotions and sensations and try to view them in a more positive light. Ultimately, it comes down to changing your perception and response to stressors rather than addressing the cause itself.
Of course, coping skills are important to have, but the underlying assumption of these types of therapy is that the pain can’t go away. In a way, they promote helplessness and the belief that you simply have to live with your condition because there’s no way to cure it. For some people, that alone might be enough. But in most cases, it’s best to address the cause as well as the symptoms.
Your body uses pain to warn you that something isn’t right — and it doesn’t always have to be in a physical sense. Listen to it carefully, and think about what it’s trying to tell you.
If you suspect that emotional trauma is hiding behind your chronic pain, trying to alleviate it won’t be enough. Visit a therapist — as hard as it may be to face your problems head-on. A pain-free life is worth it.