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Your Nervous System and Chronic Pain

Chronic pain differs from acute pain in three important ways. The body becomes more sensitive to threat, sending threat signals to the brain even when the threat is minor or non-existent.

The brain is also likely to interpret situations as threatening and sensations as painful, producing pain responses that are out of proportion to any real danger.

Finally, with repeated pain experiences, the boundaries between the many aspects of the pain response—sensation, suffering, and stress—get blurred. In most cases of chronic pain, the mind and body have learned all too well how to detect the slightest hint of a threat and mount a full protective response.

Why does past pain make you more sensitive to future pain? You can thank one of the great wonders of our nervous system: its ability to learn in response to experience. This ability is called neuroplasticity. Through the repeated experience of pain, the nervous system gets better at detecting threat and producing the protective pain response.

So unfortunately, in the case of chronic pain, learning from experience and getting “better” at pain paradoxically means more pain, not less.

Both modern science and yoga share this idea: present pain and suffering have their roots in past pain, trauma, stress, loss, and illness. Modern science uses words like neuroplasticity to describe the process of learning from past experiences; yoga uses the word samskara. Samskaras are the memories of the body and mind that influence how we experience the present moment. Samskaras keep you stuck, feeling the same emotions, thinking the same thoughts, and even experiencing the same pain.

Unlearning Pain Through Relaxation

The best way to unlearn chronic stress and pain responses is to give the mind and body healthier responses to practice.

Restorative yoga helps to transform chronic pain-and-stress responses into “chronic healing” responses of mind and body. Your mind and body have built-in healing responses that are just as powerful as their protective pain-and-stress responses.

Whether it’s a meditation on gratitude, a relaxation pose that puts the body and mind at ease, or a breathing exercise that strengthens the flow of energy in your body—they all share the benefit of bringing you back home to your natural sense of well-being.

Relaxation specifically has been shown to be healing for chronic pain. It turns off the stress response and directs the body’s energy to growth, repair, immune function, digestion, and other self-nurturing processes. The relaxation response unravels the mind-body samskaras that contribute to pain and provides the foundation for healing habits. Consistent relaxation practice teaches the mind and body how to rest in a sense of safety rather than chronic emergency. 

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