Kittredge: Re-routing our Brains

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(HOST) Chronic pain afflicts millions of Americans, and commentator Susan Cooke Kittredge has been reflecting on how recent research into its treatment may apply to other parts of our lives as well.

(KITTREDGE) People who suffer chronic pain have a lot to teach those of us who, for now, have dodged this particular affliction. I have friends who’ve been in agony for years, and, when I ask how they are doing, they look at me somewhat quizzically, as if to say, “What can I tell you?”

The answer is, they can tell us a lot – about patience and suffering – and so can the scientists who study this plight.

To greater and lesser degrees, we are all victims of chronic pain. Our pain may not be physical; it may be psychological, emotional, cultural or financial. But whatever our pain of choice, how we respond is similar to how those with chronic pain respond.

A lot of it’s in our heads. I don’t mean to imply that the pain isn’t real, but rather to note that recent studies suggest that our brains themselves might contribute to this condition.

Think of the brain as a transportation system, connecting information and interpreting stimuli; when familiar information is received, our brains read it quickly and react. It’s as though a train track were laid down in our heads and our brains say, “Oh, I know this feeling; it leads straight to, for instance, pain and suffering.” The next time the stimulus occurs, our neurotransmitters shoot straight for the usual path.

Outside the physical realm this happens a lot. Recent fluctuations in the financial markets are a case in point. As indexes tumble we think, “Here we go again! It’s 2008, it’s 1930!” Our brains race down the shiny tracks to ruin and depression before we can find the brakes.

Emotionally we’re hardwired to the tracks of past grievances. It’s a self-protective mechanism; if the worst-case scenario is covered, we won’t be caught off guard. Unfortunately, it can also be a self-perpetuating phenomenon because, in an effort to stare our demons in the face, we end up, well, staring our demons in the face.

Research into the treatment of chronic pain suggests that it may be possible through a variety of techniques to derail our brains before they choose the familiar path. Though skeptical that chronic pain can be alleviated with this alone, I am hopeful that it can help with other entrenched responses.

As frost powders the pumpkins and the days shorten with apparently increasing speed, those who experience seasonal affective disorder feel a pit in their stomachs.

They hear the train conductor calling and know why the season is named “fall,” as they anticipate tumbling into darkness.

The goal is not to let your brain buy a ticket, though it’s in line waving your Master Card. This may be easier said than done. But I think there’s real comfort in knowing that you may actually be able to reroute your tricky little brain.

“Don’t go there!” is a familiar expression that most of us have heeded with mixed success. The hope is that with training, persistence, faith and help we might actually be able to follow Robert Frost’s example and choose the road less traveled.

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