Chronic pain can be overwhelming. It can destroy every aspect of a person’s life. Jobs can be lost, self-esteem disappears, and depression and feelings of worthlessness gradually become the norm. It is not surprising that your suffering with chronic pain affects all those who care about you. Even a once-smoothly operating family can find itself in chaos, with its dynamic inexorably changed by a member in chronic pain. Families of someone in chronic pain also find they are being affected by something outside their control. They are forced to make adjustments separately and collectively to accommodate both the person in pain and the condition itself. You feel trapped because your loved one has a medical problem and you are helpless to do anything about it. When people have chronic pain, they usually can give a name to the sensations they are having. They may say their pain is burning, throbbing, aching, sharp, dull, fiery, heavy, slight, pins and needles, fleeting, long-lasting, or tingling, and on and on. Although family members, as observers, don’t actually feel what the person in pain is feeling, much of the time they understand what’s going on based on their own personal experiences of pain. And this is true everywhere, with everyone. Whether you know the person in pain or not, as a caring person you often sympathize with him or her. That is, you can understand and appreciate that this person has pain. “Oh, you poor thing,” you might say. Recent studies have revealed, however, that the human reaction to someone else’s pain is light-years beyond mere sympathy or simply understanding that someone else is in pain. While you don’t actually feel another person’s sensation of pain, when you see someone in pain your brain reacts almost as though it’s you who is experiencing the pain. Clinical tests show that true understanding of another’s pain draws on brain circuits in the somatosensory cortex that “mirror” those the person is using as he or she feels pain. In other words, when you watch someone undergo something painful, your brain “lights up” in the same areas where the brain of the person in pain is lighting up.
While you don’t actually feel another person’s sensation of pain, when you see someone in pain your brain reacts almost as though it’s you who is experiencing the pain.
Furthermore, these studies reveal that you don’t even have to see the actual occurrence of the painful experience for your brain to react. All you have to do is see a person act as if he or she is in pain, and your brain lights up. This “empathetic” reaction has been proven by researchers who took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of a person’s brain when shown videos of the face of another person who was in pain. There is an amazing overlap in the areas of the brain that are set in motion when you undergo pain and the areas of the brain that activate when you see someone else in the midst of pain. While the experience of pain is individual, expressions of pain, such as furrowing your brow, frowning, or squinting, have an obvious survival and communicative value. Facial expressions of pain can warn others of dangerous situations and elicit helping behavior. The fMRI studies also show that not only is the pain shared, but the intensity of the observed pain becomes encoded in the observer’s brain. Seeing another person experience pain causes responses in the part of your brain responsible for producing emotional reactions to the physical sensations of pain. These studies show that it’s part of being human to react empathetically to someone in pain. It’s wired into our brains. Actually, this is part of a built-in social instinct that we all have. We watch out for others in our “herd,” which leads to better survival for all of us. “I feel your pain” is almost an undeniable truism. And it is only natural to infer that when the person you see in pain is someone in your own family, someone you care deeply about, your reaction to his or her pain is exponentially stronger. Empathy for a loved family member in chronic pain is not something you can turn on or off. When you love the person in pain, you want to do whatever you can to help stop the pain, or at least make it as bearable as possible. This blog post is an excerpt from A Day Without Pain (Revised) by Mel Pohl, MD, FASAM; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP). Photo credit: Geoff LMV via photopin cc