Becoming Aware of Ingrained Thoughts Can Reduce Pain and Anxiety – Pain News Network

Posted: August 22, 2020 at 2:52 am


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By Dr. David Hanscom, PNN Columnist

Self-awareness is the essence of healing. You cannot stimulate your brain to develop in a given direction unless you become aware of who you are and where you are starting from. Awareness is a meditative tool that can be used to calm the nervous system, reduce chronic pain and anxiety, and move forward with your life.

There are four patterns of awareness that Ive written about in previous columns that work for me:

Environmental awareness is placing your attention on a single sensation taste, touch, sound, temperature, etc. What you are doing is switching sensory input from racing thoughts about pain to another sensation. This is the basis of mindfulness fully experiencing what you are doing in the moment.

I use an abbreviated version that I call active meditation, which is placing my attention on a specific sensory input for 5 to 10 seconds. It is simple and can be done multiple times per day.

Emotional awareness is more challenging. It often works for a while, but then it doesnt. When you are suppressing feelings of anxiety, your bodys chemistry is still off and full of stress hormones. This translates into pain and other physical symptoms.

Allowing yourself to feel all of your emotions is the first step in healing because you cant change what you cant feel. Everyone that is alive has anxiety. It is how we survive.

Judgment awareness is a major contributor to the mental chaos in our lives. You create a story or a judgment about yourself, another person or situation that tends to critical and inflexible.

Dr. David Burns in his book Feeling Good outlines 10 cognitive distortions that are a core part of our upbringing. They include:

These ingrained thoughts are the fourth and most problematic to be aware of. You cannot see or correct them without actively seeking them out.

Our family interactions in childhood are at the root of how we act as adults. They stem from our upbringing and the fact that our brains are hard-wired during our formative years. We know from recent neuroscience research that concepts and attitudes from childhood are embedded in our brains as concretely as our perception of a chair or table.

I used to say that thoughts are real because they cause neurochemical responses in your body. But they are not reality. I was wrong.

It turns out that your thoughts and ideals are your version of reality. Your current life outlook continues to evolve along the lines of your early programming or filter. It is why we become so attached to our politics, religion, belief systems, etc. It is also the reason that humans treat each other so badly based on labels.

One example, amongst an endless list, was how we locked up communists during the McCarthy era of the 1950s and 1960s. It is also why so many minority groups are persecuted and often treat each other badly.

It is critical to understand that these are attitudes and behaviors that you cannot see because they are inherent to who you are. It is also maybe the greatest obstacle to people getting along. We are hard-wired enough that we dont recognize or feel these patterns -- its just what we do. Its behavior that sits under many layers of defenses and has to be dug out by each person.

Our family-influenced habits and actions are much more obvious to our spouses and immediate family than they are to us. We can only get in touch with them through counseling, seminars, psychotherapy, self-reflection, spousal feedback, etc. What you are not aware of can and will control you.

Here is an example of awareness I learned at work. A few years ago, before I retired as a spine surgeon, I became aware that I consistently started to speed up towards the end of each surgery. I also realized that over the years, probably 80% of my dural tears (the envelope of spinal tissue containing the nerves and cerebrospinal fluid) occurred in the last 30 minutes of a long surgery.

The fatigue factor was part of the problem, but speed was more critical. I still didnt notice that I was speeding up. I needed feedback from my partners or assistants, so I asked them to act as my coaches. Id stop for a few seconds and say, The difficult part of this case is done. It would be easy for me to relax and hurry to finish. Please speak up if you see me starting to rush.

Every move in spine surgery is critical, so I had to make the choice to consciously slow down. The end of each surgery is just as important as the beginning and middle. My complication rate dropped dramatically when I became more aware of what I was doing.

This is a brief overview of how awareness plays a role in successfully navigating daily life. Its something of a paradox, because when we are truly immersed in the moment there are no levels of awareness. Its just complete engagement-in-the-present-moment awareness.

There are many layers to this discussion, but I hope this is a good starting point for you to understand the importance of mindful awareness.

Dr. David Hanscom is a retired spinal surgeon. He recently launched a new website The DOC Journey to share his own experience with chronic pain and to offer a pathway out of mental and physical pain through mindful awareness and meditation.

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Becoming Aware of Ingrained Thoughts Can Reduce Pain and Anxiety - Pain News Network

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August 22nd, 2020 at 2:52 am

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