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Can Changing My Thoughts Improve My Pain?

This excerpt is taken from an episode of the "Tell Me About Your Pain" podcast. You can listen to the full episode below, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts


Many chronic pain sufferers struggle with negative thoughts like self-criticism, pressure, and fear. Not surprisingly, this type of thinking makes our pain worse.

In this episode, Alan and Alon explore where these thought patterns come from and how you can change them. Alan talks to Lindsey, a chronic pain sufferer who constantly beats herself up and puts pressure on herself. Alan gives her the key ingredient to change these thought patterns and reduce her symptoms. Then Alan and Alon provide a set of concrete steps so that you can change your own negative thoughts to help break the pain cycle.

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Alon recalls his experience with having a little voice in his head, that pushed him to put pressure on himself. 

Alon: Today we're going to be talking about negative thinking, and this is a topic that really resonates with me personally. For as long as I can remember I've had this little voice in my head that is constantly criticizing me, putting pressure on me, and generally making me feel bad. It's always about work, about productivity, about getting stuff done.

And the little voice is always saying, "Yesterday you should have crossed more stuff off the list. Or today you really have to cross everything off the list." This voice is really unrelenting. I used to get pretty bad migraines - I still get them sometimes but they're not so bad these days - but in the old days they were really pretty debilitating. My head would hurt really badly on one side and there would be nausea, but I would also get what’s called aura. If you have never experienced aura, it's a really weird symptom where you basically see this weird sparkly stuff in your vision.

I always tell people it's kind of like when you look at the Sun for a second and then you look somewhere else, it's kind of like that after image. So, I always hated the aura most of all because it's so debilitating - when I have aura, I can't read, I can't watch TV because it’s this big blotch right in my vision.

I remember this one day in particular where it was the middle of the workday, I was getting stuff done and then I felt a migraine coming on. I laid down, I was in bed, laying down...dark room and close my eyes because of the aura. My head hurt, I was feeling kind of nauseous, and then that little voice appeared and it said, “Well you should really be brainstorming ideas to work on later”.

Alan: Because you couldn’t actually work then because you couldn’t see anything.

Alon: Exactly, I couldn’t do any actual work, but the little voice still wanted me to be productive.

Alan: You actually remind me of Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan is hands down the best basketball player of all time. When Michael Jordan was eight-years-old, he got a 96% on one of his tests. And he brought it home, showed his mom and his mom said, “What happened to the other four points?”

So he grew up in that way and it led to him developing a habit of putting so much pressure on himself, having such a strong drive. Having this incessant need to win. He would win a championship, and he would celebrate for 4 hours, and then would think, "I need to hit the weight room for next year to win again." He never put his guard down. I feel like that kind of personality, that kind of drive, that pressure leads to a really great basketball player. He won six championships, best player ever, but he was a terribly unhappy human being.

Alon: Sounds like for his whole life he was just hearing that voice saying, “Where's the other four points?”

Alan: Yeah, negative thinking is something I see again-and-again in my patients. When you're constantly beating yourself up and putting a lot of pressure on yourself, you're giving your brain messages of danger. We know that pain is a danger signal, so all of these messages just amplify those signals and make your pain worse.

Alon: Negative thinking is super common among chronic pain sufferers, and we're going to talk to one of them today. Her name is Lindsey and she has a little voice in her head just like mine.

[this is an excerpt only - for the full episode, listen to the podcast above]

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