memory, forgetting and chronic pain

process of overriding memory in chronic pain

I just read this very interesting article called “Painful Memories: can we train chronic pain patients to ‘forget’ their pain?” by Herta Flor discusses the crucial role memory has to play in our perception and continuing experience of pain and how cortical reorganisation occurs as a direct result of persistent pain.

On a practical level I have been using techniques over the last few months which address exactly this problem, I’ve been practising the active repression of pain memory, and it has been really effective. I started to explore this as a therapist suggested that I was exhibiting symptoms similar to those of a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) patient of hers, which apparently can be brought on as a result of persistent pain. In my previous blog post, I discussed how the central nervous system becomes hypersensitive to pain triggers as time goes on, so much so that in my case I found even sounds could trigger the pain response. Lorries with heavy loads going over bumps in the road or the screech of a train track would go straight through me. This is because for me, my most painful experiences have been on/in modes of transport, I have had terrible experiences of acute pain brought on by going over a bump in the road, by the vibration of trains on the track, and have had vivid flashbacks after painful journeys, even when safe, home and relatively pain free. It’s like being haunted.

I am very aware now whilst on modes of transport not to recall any previous journeys which caused me pain or distress. In the past these experiences were, I believe, implicitly embedded in my mind, so that no matter how much positive visualisation or meditation I did prior to travelling *bang* they kicked in, without my volition, my body obeying sensory cues from previous journeys. I think what has changed is that I now understand, intellectually, what is happening, which means I can now act in a more rational rather than an emotional way to the pain. I also have self-calming techniques and new sensory cues at my disposal, learned from practising EMDR techniques and SE (I will discuss these disciplines in future posts), which I use to feel more in control and safe, even though I am still in pain. Also, I am able finally to build up my journeys slowly and create new memories of new journeys which I think are starting to replace the previous build up of trauma-induced experiences. What is wonderful now is that with these new journeys I am creating a new brain map of achievement and positive experiences: a day trip to London to see an exhibition, a trip ‘up north’ to see friends and family, a short train journey to the university for a lecture on cognitive science, a weekend away locally. Whereas before I could not travel at all unless horizontal and in agony, now, very slowly l am building myself a new brain map, new memories of freedom, of expansion, of a world which is more open to me and full of opportunities rather than obstacles.

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