Chronic pain is like an unwelcome guest that never seems to leave. It can affect anyone, young or old, and often persists for months or even years. But are you familiar with the “threat or stress bucket” and how it relates to chronic pain? Let’s explore this concept.
Imagine your brain as a bucket, the “threat bucket,” if you will. This bucket has a limited capacity to handle stress, worries, and concerns. Anything that adds stress or strain to your life, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological, fills up this bucket…every real or perceived trauma (big “T” and little “t”) is stored in this “bucket”. The portion of the brain that stores fear memories is the amygdala and unlike the part of the brain that forgets where you put your keys (hippocampus), the amygdala doesn’t forget.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting in the context of chronic pain. When your threat bucket is already overflowing with stress from various sources – work, family, old stories you keep replaying on a loop (even though they're long passed) or personal issues – it leaves less room for your body to cope with pain. In other words, the more full your threat bucket is, the more intense and bothersome your chronic pain can become.
So, how does this work? When your brain is preoccupied with stress and anxiety, it’s like a noisy background chatter that amplifies pain signals. This heightened sensitivity to pain makes it feel more severe and persistent than it might be otherwise. It’s as if your brain is saying, “I can’t deal with all this stress and pain at once, so I’ll focus on the pain.”
Understanding the connection between the threat bucket and chronic pain is crucial because it opens up new avenues for managing pain. Here are a few simple steps to help keep your threat bucket from overflowing:
1. Stress Management: Finding ways to reduce stress through relaxation techniques, breathing, exercise and mindfulness can make a big difference.
2. Emotional Support: Talking to friends, family,a caoch or therapist about your worries can help empty your threat bucket and also help you see where you might be letting past or imagined future experiences dictate your current one.
3. Physical Activity: Regular exercise releases endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers, and can help manage chronic pain. Quality movement makes a big difference.
4. Eye exercises: If your visual system is even slightly impaired, it is considered a high priority threat by your brain. And who’s isn’t with the amount of time spent on devices! Simple exercises like “pencil pushups” can be helpful…holding a pencil arms length away and eye level, slowly bring it towards bridge of your nose until it begins to blur and then away. Repeat 3-5x many times a day.
5. Nutrition: Eat real foods that your brain can recognize and that have nutrients to reinforce your health. There's no "bar code" for processed food and that creates stress in itself. Avoiding sugars and refined carbs means you will experience fewer blood sugar highs/lows, which helps reduce anxiety.
6. Medication and Treatment: Consult with a healthcare professional for appropriate assessments and pain management strategies when pain persists in spite of the above lifestyle choices.
Remember, the threat bucket concept is a simple way to understand how stress and chronic pain are intertwined. By proactively managing your stress levels, you can encourage relief from chronic pain and improve your overall well-being.