Do you experience chronic pain? Do you also experience anxiety or depressive symptoms? If so, you’re not alone. Apparently almost half of people who experience chronic pain experience a major anxiety or depression disorder*. Although that’s a pretty significant statistic, it’s not surprising when you stop to consider the impact that chronic pain can have on one’s life.
But did you know that apparently persistent pain causes something to physically happen in the brain? In fact, a study led by UNSW Sydney and NeuRA have found that what’s happening is a chemical disruption that’s affecting the ability to keep negative emotions ‘in check’. They have suggested that people with chronic pain have an imbalance of neurotransmitters (or chemical messengers) in the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. Specifically, they’ve found a decrease in levels of the neurotransmitter, GABA which helps dial-down emotions – which means our actions, emotions and thoughts get amplified. Fascinating.
What’s even more fascinating is that in a previous study, they found levels of another neurotransmitter (called glutamate) were lower than average in people with chronic pain – and that these levels were associated with feelings of fear, worry and negative thinking.
The senior author of the studies, Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin, a neuroscientist and psychologist at UNSW and NeuRA, who’s been researching chronic pain for over twenty years says that “chronic pain is more than an awful sensation – it can affect our feelings, beliefs and the way we are”.
So, if you’re like us, you’re totally #mindblown – and you’re feeling a sense of comfort and relief… You’re feeling validated and understood. Finally, there’s something that's suggested to explain what you’ve been experiencing!
Currently, there’s no way of ‘treating it’, but given what’s going on in the brain, it’s likely worthwhile to build strategies for managing and regulating emotions.
We think for now, a little self-compassion is a good place to start (which involves treating yourself as you would a good friend) – because we’ve probably been pretty harsh on ourselves for feeling the way we have. And the research that suggests that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience).
*We are not suggesting that if you experience anxiety or depressive symptoms that you have a major anxiety or depressive disorder. An exploration of symptoms and diagnostic testing must be done by a health professional / practitioner.
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