When it comes to pain, self-fulfilling prophecies can be a powerful force. When we believe something – like movement – will harm us, it’s more likely to hurt. Scientists can even see brain activity when people expect a movement to hurt, and then pain is actually more intense. On the other hand, adjusting expectations around pain can change the role pain plays in our lives.
Expectations are one of the key contributing factors to pain. Unreasonable expectations of ourselves, like “pushing through,” can contribute to persistent pain. But the expectation that continued rest and reduced activity will cure pain is likely to disappoint and cause greater impact on our life. And the expectation that someone can “fix” the pain usually leads to discouragement because pain is never just about the body. On the other hand, it’s reasonable to expect some pain as we get back to moving. We can also reasonably expect some tough work ahead in a process that will take some time, and to need some support with it.
Pain is an experience created by the brain to protect us from danger. Persistent pain involves sensitization of the nervous system to give us extra protection, making stuff hurt when it shouldn’t. The good news is that our nervous system is always changing! Nothing stays the same in our nervous system, so neither should our expectations about what we can and can’t do. It takes time and practice, but you can help your nervous system to turn back changes that have occurred. Key to the process of reducing pain is letting go of expectations of a physical cure and entertaining more realistic expectations of gradual improvement. We also need to adjust expectations about pain by addressing not just the physical sensation, but also the various biopsychosocial factors that contribute to pain with methods like pain education, self-compassion, self-discovery, calming techniques, social support, creative pursuits and -importantly – a movement plan. The Red Willow Learning Center offers various options to help you on your journey toward expanding horizons. Start HERE!