I had such a great conversation with my friend Carrie last night. I feel like my mind expanded.
I’ve wanted to write about the “Brain Triangle” I’ve learned at the pain clinic, and now I feel like I have some new angles, so to speak.
This brain triangle explains what physically happens in our brains with chronic pain. Our brains have used neuroplasticity to create this triangle. Over time we reinforce the triangle and become better and better at it til eventually it becomes so engrained that it’s just how we operate. The parts of the triangle are 1) the area of the brain that processes emotions, 2) the frontal cortex that processes our thoughts, and 3) an area that processes and creates the pain signal.
My pain triangle for example runs like this: I feel pain in my left knee. I seem to automatically think a barrage of thoughts like, oh no, not again, what have I done?, will I hurt it if I keep walking? My emotions are fear, worry, anger, sadness. Below is a pic of the whiteboard after one of the talks on the triangle at the pain clinic.
I’ve learned that we can become aware of our triangles, and change them over time. Our goal is to bring awareness when we’re in the pattern, and we can interrupt any point in the triangle with new conditioning. We’re trying to build new triangles over the old triangles and take advantage of bioplasticity. I may feel pain, and become aware of my automatic thoughts. Instead, I can think, it’s that chronic pain again. Do I need to rest or can I keep going? I may recognize I’m feeling sadness and open myself up to the present.
This past year, with therapy, mindfulness, and learning this triangle concept over and over again in many different ways, I’ve been able to see that my psychology and outlook are malleable. What are my longstanding beliefs? Are they really true? What are my automatic patterns and narratives? Am I in one right now? How much of my reality is sort of a made up story?
Another psychological tool that I’ve learned at the pain clinic is developing a kinder, more helpful internal voice. I can develop the ability to soothe, comfort, support, and love myself. That changes a lot about my internal experience too.
I was talking to my friend Carrie about my pattern I feel stuck in. She brought up a few interesting things. We talked about the Hero’s Journey, where the hero leaves the ordinary world on a challenge they don’t necessarily want to go on. They find the old rules no longer apply. They find a mentor, overcome the challenge, and have a paradigm shift. Eventually they re-enter the world they came from, bringing with them everything they’ve learned. She also brought up metamorphosis, where caterpillars digest themselves to become a butterfly. We talked about how the past is like an old man, with lots of wisdom, but maybe not all of that point of view is relevant anymore. We also talked about how as we get older we might be coming to peace with the fact that life isn’t fair. We can actually be empowered with a more realistic pragmatism.
I’m feeling ready for a new framework, and I’m grateful for this river of ideas that has been coming at me. I’m hoping for a framework that’s kinder to myself, more equipped, less fearful and reactive, more patient, more focused, more flexible and accepting, less entitled to the outcome I want, more realistic, and more open.