The Brain in Pain: Garbage or Dessert?


Reprinted with the kind permission of Celeste Cooper, RN.

Neuroscience suggests that the conversation we have with our pain affects how our brain reacts to it. Of course, we can’t get a grip on positive thinking when in the throes of intractable migraine, nor can we expect to have the where-with-all when we are having a significant flare of any chronic pain condition. However, we might want to reconsider the unnecessary garbage we throw at our brain when our pain is treated sufficiently.

In all the cerebral glory it can muster, the brain tries to tend to pain in the usual ways. Whether pain is acute or chronic, the brain is affected by our judgments and feelings. There is a structure in the brain called the limbic system, which is in charge of this phenomenon. As an emergency room nurse, I have witnessed the differences in patient’s reactions to injuries. Those who do not catastrophize their wound tend to do better. When we personally experience an injury, we resist the temptation to look because once we do; we know we will actualize the pain associated with it.

What choice do you think our brain would make if it had the option of communicating with Debbie or Dog Downer compared to Mahatma Gandhi, Maya Angelou, or Helen Keller? Already bombarded by pain messages, the last thing our brain wants to hear is a negative dialogue about how awful something has become. We have the opportunity to reprogram our feelings and our brain. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Great care must be extended to the patient in pain. Pain is very real to those of us experiencing it and there are times when pain is the boss, no matter how much we wish otherwise. Sometimes, healthcare providers become part of the emotional conundrum so many patients in pain experience. It is a legitimate expectation to have our pain validated; it is just as important as our own personal experience and reactions to living with chronic pain. When we feel that we are mistrusted or that we can think away the problem that is causing our pain in the first place, then the negative dialogue begins. We must not let that happen; explore new relationships. We all deserve to be treated with the same kindness I am suggesting we give our body.

I will embrace a considerate dialogue with my body because “it can’t hurt.” What a metaphor. Watch out brain, here comes dessert.

Source:, Blog posted February 22, 2014.

About the author: Celeste Cooper is a retired RN, educator, fibromyalgia patient, and lead author of the Broken Body, Wounded Spirit, Balancing the See Saw of Chronic Pain, Fall Devotions devotional series (coauthor, Jeff Miller PhD), and Integrative Therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain: The Mind-Body Connection (coauthor, Jeff Miller PhD) She is a fibromyalgia expert for Dr. Oz, et al., at, and she advocates for all chronic pain patients as a participant in the Pain Action Alliance to Implement a National Strategy. You can read more educational information and about her books on her website,

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