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Pain Catastrophising: The Root of Your Autoimmune Pain?

Research has found a correlation between trauma and chronic pain. One reason is because trauma has the capacity to shape and alter the functioning of the nervous system, exert changes in the immune system and exert epigenetic changes (where certain genes get turned on in response to our environment). In this way, traumatic experiences can trigger chronic pain.

Research is showing that it’s not so much the traumatic event itself that can predict future pain, but rather the individuals perception of the event, and the extent to which that event was encoded as a violation to the person - for example, the person feels that they are the victim of that event. So how the event is perceived and the extent of impact on the person, determines whether it has a lasting negative impact. See How Core Beliefs Shape Our Health to learn more about this.

How you process that trauma can then impact your thought patterns. What is most fascinating about our thought process is that with our thoughts we actually create our future. So we really want to give awareness to our thought patterns, because so much depends on our thoughts.

What we know from studies that involve neuroimaging of the brain in individuals that have chronic pain and in healthy controls are:

Individuals with chronic pain place a lot of attention and thinking focused on pain.

This is known as pain catastrophising, and this involves:

  • Persistent patterns of fixating on pain

  • Having a hard time thinking about anything but the pain

  • Feeling at the mercy of pain

  • Focused on our pain worsening

  • Worried that something terrible is happening in our body

Science gives us a logical explanation for this phenomenon. It’s not a mystery, no one with CP is making it up, and this doesn't mean it's all in your head.

What happens very clearly and physiologically (shown in neuroimaging) is that when we place our attention on the pain, when we are ruminating on it and worrying about it, we light up the same regions of the brain that are involved in the processing of pain itself. And so, we are literally growing neural pathways for pain by how we place our attention and our thought patterns. Put simply:

More neural pathways for perceiving pain = more pain.

And ironically, nobody wants more pain, but if we don’t understand how these pieces fit together and if we’re not using the right skills, we’re unwittingly increasing our pain by focusing on it, and fearing it. As such, our thoughts and how we steer our brain can either make our pain worse or it can make it better.

Pain Catastrophising

Definition. when we think and feel negatively about our pain

  • Shapes neural functioning / neural patterns

  • Shapes brain functioning at “rest” (brain starts thinking about pain without you really feeling in control of it)

  • Associated with altered brain structure (preference for pain-finding)

  • Primes nervous system for pain

  • Makes you more attuned to pain and amplifies the areas of the brain associated with pain (makes us more sensitive to pain)

  • Sets stage for prolonged symptoms, chronic pain and poor surgical outcomes

This is not saying, “it’s all in your head", it is simply the fundamental physiology and neurobiology of pain in the nervous system.

The good news is that the impacts that pain catastrophising have on our brain and nervous systems are reversible. And so the other good news is, we have a level of control over this process.

We have to acknowledge that pain doesn't just 'happen to us', but that we participate in our pain. We don't ask for pain, but it’s here, and everyday our choices, our thoughts and emotions directly impact this experience – so we have power in this.

We can focus on harnessing the control that is available to you, and by making the most out of it – you can gain back a critical level of control that can make a huge difference to pain.

What Can We Do?

Used regularly, certain psychological techniques can:

  • Dampen pain processing

  • Reduce “high alert” (physiological hyper-arousal)

  • Reduce thoughts and emotions that amplify pain

  • Entrain positive neural patterns

These include:

These techniques are all focused on retraining neural pathways and thought patterns as a way of reducing pain catastrophising.

NB: If you have experienced trauma and find mindfulness difficult, there is a trauma-informed approach to mindfulness that uses techniques like grounding and anchoring, which use the five senses to connect to the present. Learn more here

Next Steps

Hi I'm Molly, I'm a UK-based Nutritional Therapist (DipION, mBANT, CNHC) and Self-Compassion Coach (MSc) serving my community in Harpenden and online. Here in my little online home, you'll discover the benefits of nutritional therapy and complementary therapies for autoimmune disease and chronic illness.

Want to understand more about nutrition for autoimmune diseases? Download my free recipe book and discover 12 Nutritionist-Certified Recipes to Help Alleviate the Symptoms of Autoimmunity & Chronic Illness.

If you’re ready to take the next step and get back to feeling amazing again, please book a FREE 1:1 call, in which I’d love to talk to you about your own individual diet, lifestyle, and self-care practices, share with you some personalised advice, and answer any questions you might have.


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