- Human consciousness is unique; it creates the same physiological response as physical threats—but you can’t escape from it.
- Sustained threat physiology creates many symptoms, including chronic pain. Other serious illnesses and diseases may also result.
- Being trapped by pain causes anger, which is destructive, including self-destructive. It can cause you to completely neglect your health.
- Mental health is the factor that determines your physical health, although feeling better does help your mental state.
Every living creature has a survival response to threats, including humans. However, only humans possess language and consciousness, which create a unique set of threats. The problem is that unpleasant thoughts and emotions create the same physiological reactions as physical threats. Since we cannot escape our thoughts and emotions, every person is subjected to sustained levels of fight-or-flight physiology. Suppressed feelings elicit an even stronger response. Many factors determine the intensity of this problem. Chronic pain may be a disease of consciousness.
Your Physiological State Determines Your Psychology
Your mental state is the biggest factor affecting your overall health. With sustained elevation of stress hormones comes higher metabolism (fuel consumption) and inflammation; your body will respond with a multitude of physical symptoms.1 Secondly, and maybe more of a factor, is that when you are trapped by anything, especially mental/physical pain, your body kicks in more of a stress response in a last-ditch effort to regain control. Humans have a word to describe this state–anger.
Anger is intended to be destructive, and it is powerful. The blood supply to the neocortex (thinking centers) of your brain is shunted to lower parts of the nervous system. You are also throwing off inflammatory proteins called cytokines that directly inflame and sensitize your brain. You are offline, and it is impossible to think clearly. You lose awareness of the needs of those around you, which is a step toward abusive behavior.
Devastating Effects of Anger
Anger cuts a devastating swath through anything in its way. That includes you. The ultimate act of destruction is self-destruction. Suicide is higher in people suffering from chronic pain.2 Fortunately, it is still relatively rare, but there is a common more insidious form of it—complete disregard for your health. You may not have the energy to care, and there is a high chance you really don’t care. Anger turned inward is particularly deadly because there is no end point. Why else would you choose to not feel vigorous and healthy? There is another set of illnesses and diseases that arise from not caring for your health.
The situation becomes more complicated by human’s need for mental control. We all know that trying not to think about something causes us to think about it more about it—a lot more. This phenomenon has been documented in much research.3 This effect is magnified when you are under high levels of stress.4
But there is an even more deadly process connected to consciousness called the “ironic effect”.5
The Ironic Effect: You Cannot Escape Your Thoughts, No Matter What Direction You Go
The ironic effect is significant obstacle to health and well-being. There are two opposite, but equally disruptive, aspects to it. The most familiar one is when you are trying not to think about something, you will think about it more–a lot more! Suppressed thoughts and emotions steadily become more powerful and disruptive over time. But an even more deadly aspect of the ironic effect is that when you try to think about something positive, you’ll think about it less. The conscious intention is overwhelmed by your unconscious need to be on the lookout for what may interfere with achieving it. Inadvertently, your more powerful unconscious brain spends more energy on guard against the negative. The more noble and higher your intentions, the worse the problem.
Whether you try to suppress unpleasant thoughts or have positive intentions, you have a powerful irrational self-critical voice screaming at you, and it is impossible to turn it off with rational interventions. The result is sustained exposure to mental threats with the attendant physiological changes.
Your intention is to be out of pain. Inadvertently, you’ll think about the pain more and reinforce it. The research shows that if you seek happiness, you’ll end up sad. If you try to be sad, you’ll end up buoyantly happy. If you try not to stereotype people, you’ll end up being more prejudiced. It is a major human existence problem in that many people who want to contribute to the world’s well-being end up being crippled by overwhelming unpleasant thoughts and crippling anxiety. People with few scruples are not as bothered by the ironic effect, perhaps explaining why many people in power run over those who are more conscientious.
The seed of such an ironic process is the need for mental control—any control. The effect varies considerably from individual to individual, but it is consistently present. As bad as it sounds, and it is problematic, the documented solution is incredibly simple: Simply write down your thoughts on a piece of paper and destroy it.6 The act is that of giving up mental control, and it is without risk. It is the reason your healing journey begins with this evidence-based exercise even before you get into the essence of reprogramming your brain. Every person, with or without pain, should do this daily, like brushing teeth. Even a few minutes breaks up the effect. It is also the reason why expressive writing is the one “mandatory” step without an alternative.
You Are the One Who Can Heal
The healing journey begins with acknowledging and connecting with your disbelief and downright cynicism. You have probably tried everything possible at least once. Why should this time be any different?
Successful programs systematically present deeply researched tools that allow you to calm down and reroute your nervous system as well as ways to regulate your body’s chemical state. What doesn’t work is positive affirmations and generating “belief.” Just as trying to be happy ends up making you sad, wanting to be free of pain causes you to be in more pain. The way out of pain is truly paradoxical and why the sequencing is so critical; it has evolved from the successful journeys out of pain taken by many patients.
No one intellectually wants to be sick or unhealthy. Your conscious brain, which is usually referenced to as “good intentions” or “willpower,” has no chance of solving anxiety and anger, or any of the physical symptoms caused by your heightened physiological state. It can be likened to driving your car 70 mph down the freeway in second or third gear: It will break down much sooner than if you were in fifth gear and cruising.
Mental threats are a major factor in creating adverse threat physiology. Since you cannot escape your consciousness, it is a problem.
- Sustained exposure to stress physiology causes unpleasant symptoms, illness, and disease.
- Being trapped by your thoughts and emotions (and repressed ones) creates deep anger, which is destructive. It is a driving force behind completely neglecting your health.
- Maybe the ultimate insult to being human is the “ironic effect”. The more well-intentioned you are, the greater the chances you’ll end with relentless anxiety, which compromises your capacity to live your vision.
Physical health follows the trajectory of your mental state.
1. Schubiner, Howard and Michael Betzold. Unlearn Your Pain. Mind Body Publishing, Pleasant Ridge, 3rd edition, (2016).
2. Tang NK and C Crane. Suicidality in chronic pain: a review of the prevalence, risk factors and psychological links. Psychological Medicine (2006); 36:575-586.
3. Wegener DM, et al. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1987); 53: 5-13.
4. Wang DA, et al. Ironic effects of thought suppression: A meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science (2020). https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691619898795
5. Pennebaker JW and JM Smyth. Opening Up by Writing it Down, 3rd The Guilford Press, 2016.
6. Wegener DM. The Seed of Our Undoing. Psychological Science Agenda (1999);10-11.