Emotional & Mental Aspects of Healing

By Colorado Integrative Neurology

When we talk about healing from an illness or injury, we often focus on the physical aspects. However, the emotional and mental aspects of healing are equally important and deserve equal focus.

Our minds and bodies are more connected than most people think. The first step to improving function during and/or after an injury, is getting in the correct mindset to do so. By acknowledging our emotional reactions to an illness or injury, we are better equipped to work through it, and decrease factors that may hinder healing.

More Than Mental

When we first hear that emotional responses play a part in healing, we might think that we’re referring to hypochondria, or the idea that it is “all in your head.” But this isn’t the case.

Our emotional and mental states have a real effect on our physical wellbeing. A constructive emotional landscape can reduce the frequency and intensity of pain, provide relief from systemic inflammation and more. This does not mean that the pain or illness is all in one’s head — it means that our bodies respond to what it is going on in our minds, and vice versa.

Why Does This Happen?

Our minds have an effect on our bodies because all our body systems are in communication with each other. If there is a change in one, the others need to react in order to maintain balance. Our minds and thought processes are part of the whole system.

So how does this pertain to pain? Our brains don’t perceive pain in the sense that most people assume. We do not have “pain receptors” in our bodies. We simply have receptors that relay raw data to our brains which can then be perceived as pain. When our brains perceive pain, a few different areas are often responsible. One of those areas is the limbic region of the brain, which controls emotional processing.

This part of the brain can augment our perception of pain in our body. Why does it do this? It has been evolutionarily beneficial and has to do with how we react to the stimulus. If we look down at a wound and react with much fear we are, in essence, informing our body that it is a major wound and something needs to happen ASAP to mitigate the possible injury. The proper inflammatory cascade then occurs. However, when we are in chronic pain this process can work against us by creating chronic inflammation and even sensitizing us to pain.

In other words, when we are focused on the pain of illness or injury as negative, we involve the limbic/emotional system. This focus intensifies pain.

Improving Emotional Health

Though it is difficult to disassociate emotion from pain, it is possible to reduce the amount of pain by adopting a different perspective.

When we observe instead of react, we activate our pre-frontal cortex, the area just behind your forehead. Since the pre-frontal cortex often works as a dampener to specific areas of the brain, this activity can reduce pain. Instead of judging our pain by thinking about how awful it is, try to observe it. Acknowledge it, perceive it, be curious about it. While doing so, try not to categorize it as “good” or “bad”.

Changing our perspective begins with changing the words we use. Instead of using "negative" and "positive" or “good” and “bad” to describe experiences, use the words “interesting” or “informative”. This will help you view decreased health as less of an intolerable burden, and more of a learning experience. Harness the experience as a chance to build yourself up, and you’ll feel more fulfilled and productive despite your difficulties.

Of course, this can be difficult to do—especially for beginners. For beginners, the best time to practice this kind of thinking is when your symptoms are mild. When symptoms are intolerable, it is best to distract your mind with things like feel-good movies or long baths. But if you practice this observational technique on mild symptoms, you’ll improve your ability to do it when symptoms are moderate and even severe.

As an added bonus, taking this approach can help you give more detailed information to your health care providers, which may help them better understand the contributing factors to your health issues.

Contact Colorado Integrative Neurology today to learn how we can help you in your journey to healing.