Finland graffiti of man in pain or stress

Alan Gordon with Alon Ziv identify three types of fear that can cause a person to develop chronic pain, in their 2021 book The Way Out. Synonyms for fear include anxiety, stress, worry, and a state of high alert. All of these terms refer to the same situation in the brain: the situation of being in danger.

I was shocked to discover, through reading this book, that the opposite of fear is not joy or happiness. The opposite of fear is safety. If you are experiencing chronic pain, the key to recovery is cultivating a feeling of safety, not just consciously, but deep in the unconscious mind.

Here are the three types of fear, aka lack of safety, that can cause chronic pain, in the words of Gordon and Ziv:

“There are many different factors that can put us in a state of high alert. Some of the patients I’ve worked with were in very stressful situations when their pain first appeared. . . . With other patients, it’s less about current stressors and more about the past. . . . Finally, certain behaviors can bring us to a state of high alert . . . worrying, putting pressure on ourselves, and self-criticism.”

In other words, you are at a higher risk of developing or having chronic pain if any of the following apply to you:

  1. You are currently experiencing excessive stress.
  2. You experienced excessive stress or trauma in childhood, or anytime earlier in your life.
  3. You worry constantly, or try to be perfect, or beat up on yourself internally.

If any of these are true for you, your brain may feel unsafe and have a tendency to go on high alert. Chronic pain is one way that the brain can warn your conscious mind that your unconscious mind thinks you are in danger. Looking at this list, I am not surprised that I experienced chronic pain because I identify with several of them.

If your brain is on high alert, you can learn to calm it down, and with increased calm will come a lower chance of chronic pain. Calming activities include

  • changing aspects of your current life so that it is less stressful;
  • releasing emotions from past stressors or traumas by working through them (with a therapist and/or through writing or speaking exercises);
  • noticing your habits of worry, perfectionism, or self-bashing and working to reverse them;
  • meditation;
  • changing your thought patterns and feelings around your pain; and
  • learning about chronic pain to gain a sense of empowerment by realizing it is something you have the power to change.

How precisely to do these activities is outside the scope of this blog post. If you want to start down a calming path, I encourage you to read Gordon and Ziv’s book or use the Curable app that they helped design.

Do any of the three types of fear apply to you?