Catching Your Fears

Alan Gordon, LCSW, founder and executive director of the Pain Psychology Center in Los Angeles, CA, and creator of Pain Reprocessing Therapy (PRT) has written a book, The Way Out which is rocking the pain community.

As the subheading implies, it is a scientifically proven approach to healing chronic pain. It’s an unpretentious, powerful read which teaches a process of overcoming neuroplastic pain. To be clear, neuroplasticity is the brain and nervous system’s capacity to shape new pathways or synapses and alter change.

Remember, the brain’s primary function is to keep you safe. Chronic pain sufferers know only too well that if the brain thinks you are in danger, it will likely send a message of pain or illness to try and keep you safe. Because each of us has different fears, overcoming chronic pain is complicated. What might be fearful to me won’t necessarily be fearful to you. What might trigger my pain might not phase yours.

For example, last month I was hospitalized for congestive heart failure. An echocardiogram showed that my ejection fracture (heart’s ability to pump blood and fluids to other organs in the body) has dropped from 30% – 35% to 25% – 30%. (A healthy heart is capable of pumping fluids 50% to 70%). I had been experiencing symptoms for months, but proof that my heart was able to function, even less adequately, raised my fears exponentially.

One of Alan’s suggestions in his book is to “catch your fears.” The fears I had to catch were those regarding my heart. I was afraid I might have a heart attack if I taxed it too much. As soon as my heart fluttered, or I couldn’t catch my breath, or my legs swelled to twice their size, I was living on the edge of high alert.

These heart fears were keeping my entire body tense, causing my back, hips, knees and legs to stiffen until I could barely walk. That was the brain’s ideal way to keep me from overburdening the heart. If I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t overwhelm my heart. I believe this fear has been going on for years, (especially since 2014 after two back fusions), but it took the latest hospitalization to see it more clearly. The greater my fears about my heart, the greater the pain in my legs.

According to Alan, the thoughts that trigger fear the most are worry, pressure and criticism. “It’s easy to get stuck in behaviors that rev up our brains without knowing that’s what we’re doing,” he writes.

Although we can’t stop these thoughts, we can choose how to respond. Alan suggests the following three-part process to stop our fears, whatever they might be:

  1. Become aware of the fearful thought. This was not easy for me because I was afraid for my life. Every time my heart fluttered, or I struggled to catch my breath, I immediately dove headfirst into fear. It all seemed very real. But if I were going to have any life at all, I had to notice my fears and then …
  2. Refuse to indulge the fears. It’s normal to ruminate or create a whole story around our fears and then run with them rather than catch them and stop them. But, as Alan suggests, “Try to resist that temptation. Instead of holding on to the thought, just let it go.”
  3. Lastly, replace the fear thoughts with messages of safety. For example, tell yourself: “At this very moment, I’m safe. I’m not afraid. I’m not in danger. I can handle this. I’ll be fine. I’m in charge and can do what I want. My original injury or surgery has healed.”

It’s impossible to catch every fear, but do the best you can. The more experience you have, the quicker you will identify fears. As Alan points out, you may not believe the messages of safety you give yourself in the beginning, but the more you say them, the more your brain will soak them up. The less fear you have, the more the brain and nervous system will calm down and the less pain you will experience.

Throughout Alan’s book, he restates the phrase, “Trust the process.” In short, become convinced that neuroplastic pain is some kind of fear, then let it go. When the brain feels safe, it will stop sending pain messages. Period. Trust the process.

You might need to give your brain these statements of safety every minute or two in the beginning, but that is how you retrain the brain. Remember it’s neuroplastic. What it learned, it can unlearn. That’s the good news.