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The Anxiety and Pain Connection
In 1984 Louise Hay published a little blue book called You Can Heal Your Life which looks at how thoughts and emotions can be the root cause of diseases and pain. It simply lists physical conditions their root cause and then affirmations to help let go of them. I have to admit that I have personally recommended this book to many of my clients who have used it over the years.
Having witnessed this interconnection, it is so exciting that science is now seriously starting to look at such a complex subject with lots of on going research.
Introduction to Jo Cameron
This week I stumbled upon an interesting old article credited to Mary Turner of The New York Times, it was written about Jo Cameron a 71 year old with a rare genetic mutation disorder in which she experiences no pain or anxiety, raising the question about the links between physical and psychological pain. Many therapists have an understanding of the interconnection between the two, having witnessed it many times, so seeing some scientific confirmation is encouraging. This gene could be responsible for the way a person processes physical and psychological pain hinting that sensitivity to one type of pain might be intertwined with sensitivity to the other.
Ms. Cameron said, “childbirth felt like a tickle” and she relies on her husband to alert her when she is bleeding, bruised or burnt because nothing hurts. When someone close to her has died, she said, she has felt sad but “I don’t go to pieces.” She cannot remember ever being upset even after a recent car crash, and scored Zero out of 21 on an anxiety disorder questionnaire.
Hope for future research and treatments
It may have taken a beautiful lady with her gene mutation to stir up interest in the scientific community, but finally they are finding the path to why some people are oversensitive to pain or emotions, giving hope that in the not too distant future we may be able to help so many with chronic pain or deep anxiety.
Many hope that this research into cannabinoid receptors and other findings leads to a balancing that will help those in need, society, and community as a whole, not a deep psychological numbing down. Our sensitivity in a caring way, helps us create fairness and balance acting as a protection for physical and moral decisions, even pain can be a warning sign that could be life saving. Strong emotions such as compassion can guide us to a greater understanding of others, the needs of the community and our ecosystem. Fear and anxiety too can help us see possible dangers or even keep our morals in check. So emotions when in balance can be seen as a tool that helps and guides us through life and our interactions, they are needed for us to function in a healthy way within our community.
How Pain Tolerance and Anxiety Seem to Be Connected
Dr. James Cox, from the Molecular Nociception Group at University College London who studied her case said there could be others like her, a number of such individuals contacted The Times after the article was published.
He believed that Ms. Cameron’s reduced anxiety was “related to increased signaling at CB1 receptors” or cannabinoid receptors, which are known to help the body deal with stressful situations. (Notably they are activated by the THC in cannabis)
Block the cannabinoid receptors and anxiety will increase, boost the cannabinoid receptors and anxiety will fall, the receptors also affect how people experience physical pain.
So are physical and mental pain processed the same way?
Dr. T.H. Eric Bui of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders and Complicated Grief Program at Massachusetts General Hospital says “NO, it’s more complicated than that and lots of research is still needed. What we do know is that brain regions that process emotional and physical pain overlap, acetaminophen ( ingredient in Tylenol, among other pain relievers) has been shown to decrease emotional pain”.
Dr. Naomi Eisenberger from the University of California psychology department studies the similarities in the way that the brain processes physical pain and the “social pain”(rejection) she believes YES saying she had repeatedly found that “people who are more sensitive to physical pain are more upset by rejection”
Do low-anxiety people seem to feel less pain?
Adam Woo, consultant in pain and anesthesia at King’s College Hospital says “patients with high levels of anxiety tend to be more sensitive to pain, so in general Yes, If you have anxiety, it makes your perception of pain worse, if two patients are facing the exact same kind of injury the one with more anxiety tends to have a higher pain score”.
Debra Kissen, director of Light on Anxiety, believes that some people are just more sensitive and seem to feel more intensely, that said, she has observed that anxiety and physical pain can amplify each other. “Afflicted with chronic pain a person may start to feel anxious that they have no control over their body then their anxiety may increase their focus on the pain exacerbating it, treat either one and it will sometimes help both” she said.
The Endocannabinoid system and pain
In recent years we have seen an increase of Cannabis products to ease pain, in the years to come with understanding of the endocannabinoid system there could be more targeted products.
UCL and Oxford University researchers on Jo Cameron have recently published their findings in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, the paper concludes that this case has given new insight into the role of the endocannabinoid system. Specifically in analgesia and pain sensitivity, understanding why previous efforts at treating pain relief through FAAH-inhibition have failed, and how to more effectively create an FAAH-related analgesic.
We hope that in time, these findings may contribute to research for post-operative pain, anxiety, chronic pain, PTSD and wound healing. In the meantime, it remains so important to take care of both the physical and mental states of the body to find balance and harmony.
Numbing down society with drugs may not be the way forward as we need to feel empathy and some emotions for society to function healthily, we see the problems of addiction to opioid based drugs used for pain relief and the harm it is causing.
There are many ways to help cope with anxiety and many groups appearing to help pain relief, finding programmes to help with anxiety and pain are becoming more widespread and proving to be successful. Knowledge that anxiety and pain can be intertwined is a long awaited step forward into controlling both.
We know of the misery caused by extreme pain and high anxiety so I will leave you with a quote from Ms Cameron, at the other extreme – no pain or anxiety!
“I drive people mad by being cheerful”