"Pain is All in Your Head" ... ugh
By Carla Friesen
(Clinical Psychotherapist, Life Coach, Teacher)
We can get offended when doctors and practitioners give us the impression that our child's pain is “all in their head.”
I think what we are really being offended by is the insinuation that we are “making up” our pain. THAT is definitely not true. Nobody sits at home thinking, “I need attention. I want to lay in bed more. I am going to just pretend that this hurts.” Well ok, maybe we all did that once or twice as a child when we wanted to stay home from school but really, none of our kids would choose the pain they are going through over participating in life. They are NOT making it up.
However, while chronic pain is as real as any pain, it actually IS constructed in the brain. As are hunger signals, emotions, and so many things really. Intense emotions can also create bodily sensations. Butterflies, heart pounding, sweating…. these are also caused by messages sent by the brain. And they are real too. Messages from the brain create very real sensations in our bodies!
Once pain becomes chronic, it often is because of an overactive, extra protective brain that wants to protect you from danger. It’s very thoughtful of your brain, really. But, just like an overprotective parent can prevent a child from enjoying life, so can our brains.
These overprotective brains (parents) are always surveying the scene for possible danger and trying to keep us safe. They notice any little thing that goes off course and then they quickly send us pain to make us come home. If friends aren’t being nice, if school work is too overwhelming, if we have too many things on our to-do list, if the weather changes, if we stay up too late…all these are reasons for the protective parent to call us home (with pain) and warn us that we better not do that again (with more pain).
We need to show these overprotective brains that life is not as scary as they think. We need to show our brains that we can handle it. We kind of need to become like a rebellious teenager and show our brains we don’t need an overprotective parent anymore. And the best way to do this is with slow exposure so our brains don’t overreact. By slowly becoming more functional again and showing our brains we can manage it.
And if we want to stay out later and not be bothered by our overprotective parent, we might need to put them in a good mood first. To put our overprotective brains in a good mood and lower their defenses, we practice deep breathing, imagery, meditation, yoga, anything that can ease the brain out of fight or flight mode. It’s like giving your overprotective parent a bottle of wine to put them at ease. (ok maybe I am taking this analogy a little too far!)
It is strange to think that we would have to re-train a brain. Especially in kids where their brains are still so new and should be functioning well! But if we aren’t actively re-training our brains, they are actively re-training us by teaching us that pain warrants rest and staying home, and retreating from life.
It can feel like an uphill battle. These brains are smart! And persistent. And they are doing a good job of protecting us but they are overdoing it.
We need to talk the brain’s language in order to teach it. Spurts of trying this and that don’t work. The brain needs consistency and routine. Small consistent shifts start to create new neural pathways. The more we reinforce these pathways, the more they become the dominant pathways. That is one reason why mental health support is so important on our chronic pain journey. The right therapist can help us to build this consistency and routine, ease the nervous system, and put the overprotective parent at ease.
Consistency, routine and small steps can seem like a lot when you are exhausted and overwhelmed. I know. I've been there. That’s why I created “The Greta Method” to help parents support their kids to manage their pain. It is a 12 week online program to help kids start participating in life again. It isn’t for kids who are already pretty functional (although I am working on a program to support those kids too). It is for parents of kids who are struggling to participate in life. You can find more info on it under my "services" tab of my website.
I also offer coaching for kids and parents who are at any stage of their chronic pain (or parenting) journey. This can be a lonely and exhausting road I would love to partner with you to navigate your way through it. Send me a message or book a free phone call to see if the support I can offer might be helpful for you.
The general contents of this website are provided solely for educational and informational purposes and are not meant to provide professional medical or psychiatric advice, counselling or therapeutic services.