Pain is an interesting word. We all know that pain means we hurt. Sometimes the reason we hurt is obvious….an injury for example. Other times the source of pain is not apparent. But how does pain develop? Pain can occur when there’s tissue damage….i.e. a broken limb. It is also true that pain can be severe even when there is no tissue damage. Pain is the brain’s response to trauma. This response can take place even if the area has healed.
Physiologically this works through neural pathways. The brain receive a signal from muscles and other organs. If the message is that there may be danger (think touching a hot surface) the brain sends it’s own painful signal via the nerves to pull away quick. All this happens in seconds. This is an important response that is designed to protect the body from injury.
This response can become a habitual one that occurs even when the danger passes. So the brain interprets a signal that previously was associated with danger, and it sends a signal of pain to protect from tissue damage. It seems a little screwed up, right? However, if the brain did not respond to touching a hot surface with pain, you may leave your hand on a hot surface and suffer 3rd degree burns. The problem occurs when the brain gets into the habit of sending pain signals when there is no danger to the body.
There is a yogic term for these habitual patterns. It is a samskara…a learned response or pattern of behavior. Samskara can refer to emotional, social or physical behavior. The physical aspect of a samskara is the learned response of the nervous system to some sort of action or stimulus. Sometimes this happens quickly. A good example is practicing a balance pose. The first side often feels more shaky than the second side. Sometimes there’s a physical reason for this, such as strength differences between the two lower limbs. However, it is often a samskara. The brain and nervous system has already learned what to do from practicing the posture on the first side. Therefore side number 2 seems easier.
Samskaras can also contribute to chronic pain. The neural pathway signals for pain to occur in response to danger. Sometimes something occurs that has indicated danger in the past. Even though there is no current danger (i.e. no tissue damage) the brain still signals the nerves to respond with pain. This can become a vicious circle because pain can increase stress which can make nerves more sensitive and thus more susceptible to pain.
It’s important to note that there is no one size fits all approach to reprogramming your samskaras or your pain. The first step should always be to visit your doctor, physical therapist or other healthcare practitioner. In addition to medical care it is useful to reduce stress levels and shift your focus away from the pain. Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices can help to resolve painful samskaras.
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