Doctor Studying MRI of Brain

Table Of Contents

Pain In The Brain: How Discomfort Boosts Mood & Reduces Anxiety

What I'll Be Covering..

1. It's A State Of Mind

Think back to the last time you stepped beyond the comfort zone. Perhaps it was signing up to a rigorous gym schedule—in pursuit of that perfect beach body? Or staying behind in the office—helping get that big project over the line?

Maybe you got up earlier and started each day with a cold shower? Or asked out that gorgeous girl—the one who serves you coffee each morning on your way to work?

Whatever it was odds are high you were approaching potentially negative experiences on the front foot. But what you might have missed was how—over time—this forthrightness would spillover into the domain of mood and mental wellbeing. 

Psychologists, neurologists, and therapists have all reached the same remarkable conclusion. Those who deal with added levels of discomfort tend to report higher levels of satisfaction.

“The key idea is simple,” explains social psychologist Brock Bastion, “taking proactive steps to overcome unpleasantness—be it a rigorous workout at the gym or simply pushing ourselves a bit more at work—propagates changes in the brain that affect how we think and feel about ourselves at a biological level. Pain and suffering, as it turns out, are neither antithetical to happiness nor simply incidental to it. They’re necessary for it: for without these things, there’s no way to achieve real happiness.”

This is the dynamic I will be exploring today. I want to highlight some new and exciting research that has brought to light some of the surprising neural mechanisms by which pain is connected to and overlaps with our general state of mind. Drawing on recent findings, I aim to set-out, in a two-part series, how pain benefits us in the following key areas: (1.) mood and mental wellbeing. (2.) anxiety and self-doubt. (3.) motivation and drive. And if, after all that, you’re still not convinced; (4.) clear-headedness and mental lucidity.

“The comfort zone is a psychological state in which one feels familiar, safe, at ease, and secure. You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone; change begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

—Roy T. Bennet | The Light In The Heart

Make no mistake. Suffering can render us cynical and miserable. I know that first hand—try making friends with me for the three years I endured a slipped disc. But if we steel ourselves against its sting, if we rise above its fitful layers of fear and resistance; then, unpleasantness can bring with it some surprising upshots. Pain, as it turns out, renders us happier and more emotionally stable human beings.

2. The Extraordinarily Interconnected Human Brain

The first thing we need to consider is that the brain relies on multiple linked systems processed together—not just isolated specialist regions. Researchers tell us there are more connections inside this 1.3kg lump of grey matter—1.1kg for the ladies—than there are particles in the known universe.

Taken independently, these connections tend to be incredibly complex and varied. But layer them on top of one another and things start to get interesting. The interwoven nature of all this biological hardware triggers certain chain reactions and spillover effects which, in turn, rebound upon our mental wellbeing.

Consider for a moment the butterfly effect in chaos theory. The story goes that the tiny effect of a butterfly’s wingbeat in Taiwan ignites a chain reaction of atmospheric movements that ultimately causes a category five tropical storm in Belize. Naughty butterfly indeed. But pretty much the same dynamic holds true inside our brains.

Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate the point. Rewind the clock back to 2007 and you would have found me doing a bit of seasonal work on a vineyard out in Western Australia. The physical drudgery was long and hard and, as I discovered later, led to some significant back damage. Many years later I am structurally healed, and, as long as I keep myself strong, lean and mobile, I am fine. And yet sometimes I still feel the pain. Why is this?

Fresh outta school: Tending Vines & Drinking Wine in Margaret River, 2009

Medical experts revealed to me how my brain etched and logged a certain neurosignature around the whole event: in the process tying together several different ignition nodes. While I am now healed the fact remains that this neurosignature still exists inside my head. Triggering any one of its ignition nodes—perhaps via anxiety or through negative thinking—has the power to fire up the neurosignature and re-ignite the painful experience for me again. Fascinating, right? 

But it’s hugely important. Among other things it tells us complex psychological processes that appear unconnected from each other—such as state of mind and pain perception—are, in fact, thoroughly intermixed biologically. What’s more, these hidden entanglements have considerable consequences on how we operate at the psychological level.

However we view the relationship between the mind and brain—and especially if we think them to be more or less the same thing—understanding more about the structure and function of all these hidden interconnections and overlaps is likely to result in some sizeable insights into the nature of consciousness, and how we might better live in the world in general. So then, let’s begin.

3. The Insula—The Brain's Biological Melting Pot

The brain scientist studied the swirling motion of neurological activity laid out before him. The MRI scans put him in mind of a deep and turbulent ocean. Each shifting configuration seemed unpredictable: its motion changing direction seemingly at random—joining with others or breaking apart into hyper violent local tempests.

This was consciousness at its most primordial form: an amalgam of neural algorithms that represented someone’s thoughts and feelings, all their sensations, perceptions, beliefs, their desires, judgements and imaginings, everything of which they are aware of from moment to moment.

The esteemed neuroscientist stepped closer and shifted his mind into the realm of abstraction: coaxing revelation instead of forcing it into light. Something in the evolution of these patterns felt awry, as though it were governed by an equation so complex, so fractal, it was almost invisible.

Step by step, he saw more of the pattern emerge as the grammar of the algorithms coalesced into his mind. The patient had been complaining of depression alongside unexplained chronic pain for months: it seemed to him the problem was emanating from the insula.

The Insula
The Insula refers to a thin ribbon of gray matter, located in either hemisphere, that resembles a tiny Japanese fan.

My goal in the following section is to show you how the world of emotion interacts with the world of sensation. We will begin at the insula: a somewhat enigmatic neural mechanism that lies tucked beneath the thick folds of gray tissue that make up the brain’s cerebral cortex.

Little is known about this mechanism. But we do know it’s an extraordinarily well-connected piece of hardware: scientists believe, through its connection with the frontal brain, implicated in thinking and planning, as well as more primitive parts of the brain, implicated in emotion and reward, the insula acts as a central hub through which different types of bodily sensations and feelings converge and intermingle.

You might imagine it as a biological melting pot: the critical nexus point that establishes a basis for a more or less cohesive state of being. 

4. Cerebral Crossovers: Connecting Pain With Emotion

Keep in mind, however, this leads to some surprising results. Suppose, for example, someone is prone to experiencing violent mood swings. The insula is believed to mix that person’s emotional agitation into their general bodily awareness: potentially resulting in myriad unexplained physical symptoms—like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome—to go along with their capricious mental temperament. 

“Pain is not like a disease, something to be warded off,” writes Nick Potter in The Meaning Of Pain. “Rather it’s the conscious manifestation of a multitude of responses and processes occurring at a neuro-psychological level. The fact is that many people with chronic conditions are simply experiencing the raw physical manifestation of emotional problems.”

Given these insights, it any wonder that those who report higher levels of stress tend to accumulate unexplained health problems—like migraines and chronic fatigue syndrome—by the time they hit old age? The biochemical consequences of their emotional agitation, left unchecked, lock the insula into a state of hypersensitivity: rendering these unfortunate people more predisposed towards discomfort.

By the same token, those who manage to keep themselves positive on a long-term basis—who look after their emotional health—tend to develop a mind that interprets painful sensations less readily.

All this brings us to the next question. Does the relationship work both ways? Can suffering, can placing additional hardships upon the mind, give rise to a healthier and happier emotional state? 

“Fear and anxiety many times indicates that we are moving in a positive direction, out of the safe confines of our comfort zone, and in the direction of our true purpose.”

—Charles F. Glassman | Brain Drain: The Breakthrough That Will Change Your Life

Brock Bastion, social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, maintains that it does. The insula, he explains, blends the biochemical consequences of dealing with higher levels of pain—whether physical, like strenuous exercise, or emotional, like facing up to and overcoming different forms of fear and hesitation—into our wider emotional makeup: propelling the tougher and hardier among us into higher elevations of happiness and mental wellbeing.

The act of embracing pain, he goes onto say—of stepping beyond the comfort zone—generates chemical and electrical changes within the insula which, in turn, spillover into how we feel at a basal level.

The clear message from decades of research is simple: Those who deal with added discomfort, who embrace challenges and overcome different forms of physical and emotional pain, tend to become happier and more positive people in general.

Those, on the other hand, who shy away from negative experiences—who disregard physical conditioning, for example, or dodge psychological confrontations—tend to become predisposed towards anxiety and depression.

Toughness Provides A Solid Basis For Mental Wellbeing
Building Toughness Provides A Solid Basis For Mental Wellbeing

From this perspective, being more fearless with pain and approaching it head-on, exploring its other qualities and developing insights into how we might harness it towards our own advantage, certainly seems like a worth-while endeavour.

To be clear, however, we’re not talking about those with chronic pain—it’s obvious that painful sensations are not always our friend. What we’re alluding to is finding positive ways to proactively incorporate more healthy forms of pain into our lifestyle: Things like honing physical fitness, developing mental fortitude, and regularly journeying beyond the comfort zone, things that allow us to achieve deeper levels of self-mastery, while at the same time addressing longstanding problems like depression and mental apathy.

5. How Pain Reduces Anxiety & Self Doubt

Suppose for a moment you’re a young man enjoying a refreshing caramel frappe in your local Starbucks. You’re scrolling through your phone, minding your own business, when a woman somewhere in her early-to-mid-twenties saunters in through the front door.

Her gym-sculpted figure draws your attention—narrow waist and pendulum hips. Sun-lightened hazel hair falls in tumbling locks over her shoulders. She sits down and flashes you a warm smile: high bright teeth surfacing between saccharine sweet lips. 

How do you react? Most digitally-consumed young men nowadays would likely finish up and leave—without saying a word. They’ve forgotten that it’s precisely by rolling the dice, precisely by stepping outside the comfort zone, that we expand our horizons, make new connections and experience the fullness of life.

So what’s behind this mushrooming miasma of self-doubt? Could it be, perhaps, that comfort amplifies anxiety and self-doubt at the neurological level: causing many of us to become more fearful and apprehensive than previous generations? Could it be, in other words, that the relative security and safety of today is breeding a softer and more pathologically risk adverse type of person?

“The solution to life isn't to hide from the dirt. It's to go into the dirt and build a better immune system.”

—Owen Cook | High Status Communication

For someone living in a modern first world country, the emergence of cotton wool culture—the personal conviction that our lives should remain free from pain and hardship—probably seemed like a good idea at first. But what began as a focus on physical safety—removing sharp objects and choke hazards, for instance, or requiring seatbelts—has rapidly morphed into an almost religious conviction that we should be protected from any and all kinds of harm.

This is not a good thing. Especially when considering the role the insula plays in managing the emotional aspects of risky decision making. Recent research has revealed that what we feed into this biological melting pot—the raw ingredients, as it were—bubbles up into the higher realms of consciousness as well: affecting us not only on an emotional level, but extending right through to how we mediate fear and deal with risk.

Keep in mind this means remaining within the comfort zone hits us hard at two critical levels. The first and most important is biological: by refusing to face up to pain and fear—whether physical or emotional—we trigger bandwidth compression in the chemical and electrical signals flowing through the insula.

This spectral narrowing sparks an unseen failure cascade within our neurochemistry, which, in turn, gets reflected and reinforced through our decision making behaviour.

To put it in stark terms, we begin to see things through a lens of fear and caution. We shrink from obstacles and limitations. We stay within our comfort zone, precisely when we should be broadening our options and patterns of behaviour.

“Safe—no fouler word existed. He needed to be moving, out on the saddle, chasing something down. The mindset seemed burned into him—like the scar on his cheek.”

—Chris Wraight | Scars

The second level is purely psychological. Think about your own life for a moment. Have you ever stuck with something—a job you were unhappy in, a relationship that was dysfunctional, a friendship you had outgrown—because you feared uncertainty and change? Think about how this is affecting your future horizons.

Among other things, it was fascinating to watch humanity reveal itself as an advanced insect colony in 2020, after billions of previously healthy, seemingly-intelligent people sacrificed their own rights and freedoms in exchange for at best marginal reductions in disease risk. 

Governments proved eager to capitalise on this on this naïve faith in professional management: stubbornly enforcing lockdowns and mask mandates until alleged risk levels dropped to zero and virus-related-deaths seemingly became a thing of the past. These lockdowns, in turn, kicked social atomisation to levels we’ve never seen before. Being chronically starved of social bonds, many people grew listless and withdrawn. Screen time rose dramatically across all demographics. 

The fallout from this cultural shift is only now becoming apparent. A recent report from the Lancet found global rates of anxiety and depression climbed by nearly a third in 2020 alone—the largest increase ever recorded. To be clear that’s an extra 53.2 million cases of depression and about 76.2 million cases of anxiety than previously recorded. 

Depression & Anxiety Rates Before & During Covid
Depression & Anxiety Rates Before & During Covid: Lancet 2021

The solution I propose is reassuringly simple: by changing the relationship we have with pain—the types of emotions and attitudes we place around it—we stand to change the inner workings of the insula and in doing so clamp down on the pathological risk aversion so common in people today.

Psychologists will tell you to focus on the psychological level: change thinking patterns, challenge past beliefs, rehearse visualisation techniques. It never strikes them that things don’t really get fixed here. They really don’t. Want to make better decisions? Want to become bolder and more courageous when facing up to new challenges?

By developing a more positive approach to unpleasantness—perhaps by instigating a new gym regime, for example, or regularly pushing through feelings of social trepidation—we stand to launch ourselves into a higher mental paradigm: one in which we’re more confident and willing to embrace healthy risk. 

I thought of a nice image for this kind of change—a sailboat. When a sailboat has a mighty wind in its sail, it glides along so effortlessly that the boatman has nothing to do but steer. He makes no effort; he doesn’t push the boat. That’s an image of what happens when—rather than focusing on superficial psychological processes—we instead address our problems at a more fundamental level. 

By taking this approach, by using pain to reshape the insula, we set the stage for a host of profound psychological improvements: ranging from better mood and mental wellbeing, on the one hand, to sizable increases in confidence and self esteem on the other.

Perhaps next time around we decide to strike up a conversation with the girl from Starbucks and twenty minutes later—frappes half drunk—exchange numbers. Who knows where it might lead?

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