It was previously thought that the brain doesn’t change much after childhood and because of this certain habits or behaviours we developed in this period cannot be changed. It was believed that this could cause us to get stuck in later life continually acting out certain behaviours we have learnt during this period. Likewise there are also people who believe that once pain has lasted for longer than 3 months (the medical definition for chronic pain) then it is unlikely it will resolve and will become permanent. We now understand that this is wrong on both counts.
What I have found when working with people who have chronic pain is that there are certainly behaviour and thought patterns that can have a negative effect and even cause pain. Often these patterns are learnt in childhood, but they are not permanent and can be changed. Yes the brain can get stuck repeating the same thought pattern, which causes you to act in a certain way, but you can retrain it to think differently. Likewise the adaptive changes that occur in the brain and central nervous system that cause the majority of chronic pain are also not permanent. So by changing the negative thought and behaviour patterns you can in turn stop them from driving the pain cycle.
Here is a great video that explains neuroplasticity (Patterns of activity in the brain and nervous system). It shows how the brain like the nervous system is adaptable and constantly changing. Because of this it is possible to rewire your brain to a new way of thinking:
Negative self-talk that may have started when we were young can continue in later life and become a habit. Often when people with a low self-esteem can reinforce this with negative self-talk. This also prevents people from doing things that are good for them because they don’t feel they are worthy. It may mean you stop socialising with friends, stop exercising due to a negative image of yourself or don’t take time out to do things you enjoy. If you don’t do things that are good for you and you are regularly feeding negative information into the system, it will have a negative impact and is likely to cause pain.
As the video explains you can change your thought patterns, which in turn can help change your behaviours, which in turn can make you do activities that are positive for your pain. By doing this it helps to switch of the pathways in the brain that are causing the pain and helps to create new pathways that switch the pain off.
Now just because you can do this it doesn’t mean it is easy. It requires will power and perseverance to break the negative habits. Imagine you are golfer who has swung his club in a particular way for years. You go to see a coach who tells you that they could improve your game by changing your swing pattern. To begin with the new swing will feel very strange and you may not play as well for a few weeks as you adjust to the different way of playing. After a while though when you have repeated the new swing enough it will start to feel natural. You get used to it and actually find that your game improves and you are a better player than before.
Breaking habits can work in the same way but with perseverance and repetition you can create more positive habits instead! This switches off the old habits and pathways that were leading to the pain.
For some great advice on creating new positive habits have a read of this blog written by Georgie Oldfield on the SIRPA website: