I have seen a number of teenage girls over the past year who are affected by chronic pain. They are often referred because of recurring headaches or migraines but we discover that there is widespread sensitive at play. How does this happen? Why does it happen?
Headaches and migraines can be functional pains. When these pains are part of a picture of sensitivity, often accompanied by anxiety, there are often other problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic pain and jaw pain. Whilst these problems all appear to be different, they have a common biology. Typically I work with women aged between 30 and 55 who suffer these aches and pains, but increasingly this is an issue of the younger female. Having said that, when I explore the story of an adult, we often find reasons for sensitivity that begin in childhood. This priming sets the scene for later events.
As adults we face many challenges. We have body systems that are trigged by these challenges, especially if we think they are threatening to us. In particular the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is quite brilliant at preparing us to fight or run away, which is very useful…..if you are facing a wild animal. On a day to day basis, it is in fact useful for the ANS to kick in and create some feelings in the body that alert us to danger — the caveat being, nothing is dangerous until it is interpreted as so, and hence we need a construct of ‘danger’ and of the thing that is perceived to be dangerous. For example, a baby may not have the construct of a lion and hence sees this big, cuddly, moving….thingy…like my teddy (may not have a construct for any of these either!), and essentially detects no threat. As the baby detects no threat, he or she behaves in a way that may not threaten the lion and hence the lion may feel safe. Both feeling safe, they become friends. Perhaps — these things have happened apparently. Please do not try this at home, but hopefully you get the idea. Back to day to day….
In the modern world we often feel anxious. This is the body warning us that something is threatening. In many cases that I see, there is a strong reaction to banal events and non-threatening cues. Or if the cue is worthy of attention, the response is well out of proportion — e.g. utter panic and defensive thinking-behaviours. To what do we respond most frequently? Definitely not lions. Muggers? Gunmen? Earthquakes? Tidal waves? These are all inherently dangerous situations, that we simply do not often face. Sadly some people do have such encounters but the majority of us do not. The answer is our own thinking. The thoughts that are evoked — seemingly appearing form nowhere at times — are not the actual problem but instead the interpretation of the thought (metacognotion; our thinking about our thinking). The meaning that we give to a thought, often automatically, will determine the body response as our thoughts are embodied. And just to complicate things further in relation to thinking, there’s a world of difference between the experiencing-self and the memory-self. The former refers to what is happening right now, the latter to what we remember, or think we remember. In terms of pain, if our memory of a painful event concludes with a high level of pain, this will flavour the memory-self and we will report as such. The story, which is a snapshot within our lives, and how it turns out has a huge impact upon the subsequent memory of what happened.
The adult within an environment that becomes threatening, the workplace for example, can become very responsive to different cues that once were innocuous. Now they pose a potential danger and each time that happens and we respond with protective thinking and behaviours, the relationship becomes stronger — conditioning. There is no reason any this cannot be the same for younger people who are consistently within an environment and context that begins to pose a threat; a demanding school environment with high expectations plus the child’s own expectations and perfectionist traits. Place this context within a changing period of life and minimal time for rest and there is the risk of burn out or development of problems that involve many body systems. We cannot, no matter what age we are, continue to work at a level that is all about survival.
I focus on girls and women because females outnumber the males coming to the clinic. Many are perfectionist, many are hypermobile, many are anxious, many are in pain and many are suffering. This is a situation that needs addressing worldwide, and starts with understanding what is happening, why it is happens and how it happens. Over the past 10 years this understanding has evolved enormously, providing tangible ways forward. This does not mean that we need to change perfectionism, but rather recognise it and use it wisely; this does not mean that anxiety is abnormal, but rather recognise it as a normal emotion that motivates learning and action; this does not mean that feeling pain is a problem to fear, but rather know it can change when we take the right action; and it does not mean that we will not suffer, but rather accept that part of living involves suffering that we can overcome and move on.
We have created an incredible, fast moving world. The body does not work at such a pace. It needs time to refresh and renew so that we can think with clarity and perform to a high level, achieve and be successful. We are humans. We are a whole-person with no division between body and mind; instead one thinking, feeling, sensing, creating, moving and living entity responding to the experience of the now and to memory of what we think happened. Gaining control over this with understanding and awareness provides a route forward to wellbeing, no matter where the start point.
If you are suffering with persisting pains — body pain, joint pain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), headache, migraine, pelvic pain, jaw pain + feeling anxious, unwell, tired — call now and start moving forward 07518 445493 | Clinics in Harley Street, Chelsea and New Malden