Years ago, I met a psychiatrist who specialized in addiction and chronic pain.
While I learned a number of fascinating things from him, one has really stuck with me all these years.
He told me that, just like anything else, you can practice pain.
Let me show you what I mean:
The brain is an adaptive system. It physically strengthens neural circuits that are consistently activated and depresses (down-regulates) circuits and cells that are used infrequently.
So let’s pretend that you have a weird ache in your lower back. It’s probably nothing serious. It’s probably from running or sitting in an odd position on the couch. However, let’s say, for whatever reason, you keep paying attention to it. You’re worried—so you mentally check-in on the ache to see how it’s doing many times throughout the day.
And, to your dismay, you find that the ache doesn’t go away. It’s still there for some reason… and it seems to be getting worse.
You go to your doctor and get a scan. There’s nothing wrong… but the pain keeps intensifying! What’s going on?
According to my psychiatrist friend, it’s getting stronger because you’re paying attention to it–in other words, it’s getting stronger because you’re *practicing* it. Each time you place attention on your lower back, you re-activate the neurons that represent your lower back, which causes them to strengthen and sensitize.
It’s a perverse feedback loop.
Normally, paying attention to discomforts and odd sensations is a good, adaptive thing. If your pain sensors are going off, it’s likely that something is wrong and that you should be aware of it.
However, for those of us who are a bit more neurotic, little aches and pains can turn into obsessions—and the practice of bringing attention to these discomforts, time and time again, only strengthens their sway over our minds.
This isn’t just true of pain. We see this same thing in every area of life.
If you’ve been thinking of buying a new red Volvo, you’ll probably start seeing it everywhere.
Attention –> neural sensitization.
We literally become what we think about.
That’s doesn’t mean that we’re blank slates, completely formed by our environments. We all have natural inclinations, and brain circuits are quick to adapt back to baseline if they aren’t supported with the fertilizer of thought… but it’s something we should try to always keep in mind. We are the gardeners of our minds.
I hope that you use your attention to plant good seeds.