Love or Fear- What Motivates You?
Blissfully strolling hand in hand with your sweetheart on a balmy summer day or using those same hands to desperately clutch your mangled leg, while pinned in a horrendously painful car accident. Which memory would YOU prefer to relive? Given a choice between a positive, joy-filled personal memory or a painful, upsetting scene, humans typically prefer to recall the pleasant one. It simply feels better, naturally. Who, besides a masochist, would consciously choose to keep reliving a painful memory?
That said, why have healthcare practitioners been asking patients/ clients to rate their pain levels on a scale of 0-10, with “10 being the worst pain ever” for the last 25 years? Each time a memory is recalled, our subconscious mind automatically takes us back to that time/ place and replays a tape in our heads as though it were actually occurring again. Along with that, comes an energetic shift and a bolus of neurochemicals, which impact our homeostasis in either a positive or negative way!
In my experience, both personally and with my own patients, the most pleasant way of modifying behavior has been guiding people towards a desirable outcome instead of wasting energy resisting the things we are trying to avoid.
Lessons learned Dieting
Like many teens, I struggled with weight for years, constantly obsessed with the number on the scale and controlling calories on my plate. Regardless of how I felt, the only thing that mattered was the magical number on the spinning dial each morning and evening. If I met my goal I was happy; if not, I could spiral to an incredibly sad place, and stay stuck in the darkness for days. My energy level and mood were seemingly controlled by the mere thought of weight and calorie restriction.
I learned first-hand that by struggling against the weight (fearfully pushing away food/pounds to hit a certain numerical target), I could succeed for quite some time, only to rebound and get hooked on an endless cycle of anxiety, fear and yo-yo diets.
Thankfully, when I stopped the insanity & reframed the quest as seeking better health, I leaned into discovering why I was struggling and started making holistic health decisions. Instead of seeing food as the enemy, I embraced each morsel as my nourishing friend and started making nutritionally dense selections (instead of restricting calories). I was rewarded with a more pleasant outcome overall: naturally, healthy weight, stable moods & increased energy.
What about Pain/ Comfort?
If we struggle against the pain (pushing down the 10/10 pain level to a certain goal of 3-4), we often succeed briefly with the force of medication, yet when the effects wear off, the pain returns. Have we truly healed the root of the problem? Not at all. We are merely covering up the messages being sent by our bodies. Even worse, we are often left with a plethora of undesirable side effects which can ultimately result in addiction, overdose and death.
IF, however, we reframe pain as our body’s messenger and Guardian, we listen attentively to the signals, and can demystify what is happening. The key is to do so through a hopeful lens- one that encourages us and sets our healing vision towards achieving Comfort with “10 being the Best you have ever felt”.
So, instead of reliving the painful car accident, picture in your mind’s eye, “Being in love and walking hand in hand with your sweetheart”… or “gazing into the adoring eyes of your newborn infant”. Sit with your loving memory for a few moments and allow hope to permeate your cells. With one simple thought`, the fear of pain is gone, replaced with the soothing energy of love, joy and comfort.
As with the goal of better health (reframing weight in the initial example), True Comfort is the ultimate goal out of the Trap of Pain (not simply pain suppression). In addition to possessing a body, we must recall that we are also blessed with a powerful mind and spirit which clamor for our love and attention daily, in their unique ways. With our busy lives, however, we are often too distracted to hear the gentle whispers of their call. Healing deeply requires a keen ability to notice, understand and unify all of the holistic messages we experience not only from our body, but also of our mind and spirit.
So how can we harness our mind most effectively for healing pain? Dr. D. Siegel (2010) explains, “One of the key practical lessons of modern neuroscience is that the power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself.” (p. 39). I suggest that if we continue to focus our attention on fighting pain we are actually making it more difficult to heal by negatively wiring the firing patterns in the brain. Could we, as the healthcare industry, instead, offer a more positive focus to assess our body’s messages with each patient encounter, thereby rewiring our innate capacities to heal?
Further supporting this integrated, holistic aspect of health, Siegel reminds us that the “brain” is not just in our heads. “Neural tissue becomes intricately woven with our musculature, our skin, our heart, our lungs and our intestines.” He continues, “This data forms the foundation for visceral maps that help us have a ‘gut feeling’ or a ‘heartfelt’ sense. Such input from the body forms a vital source of intuition and powerfully influences our reasoning and the way we create meaning in our lives.” (p. 43)
Recent research at Aalto University (2018) explored how Love and Fear are visible across the brain using functional MRI technology. Based upon the results of 109 participants, the researchers concluded, “emotions have distinct brain activity and connectivity patterns that encompass large extent of the brain. Emotions can thus be viewed as systemic states that, at a given moment, facilitate and constrain other mental functions.” It is therefore important that we focus our energy/ attention purposefully with hope, instead of struggling against negative emotions like fear which is often attached to pain. Emotions matter!
Why Does Love Feel Better Than Fear?
Back to the brain we go again- it has to do with rewards and motivation. When speaking of romantic and maternal love, Bartels & Zeki (2004) noted, “Both types of attachment activated regions specific to each, as well as overlapping regions in the brain's reward system that coincide with areas rich in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Both deactivated a common set of regions associated with negative emotions, social judgment and 'mentalizing', that is, the assessment of other people's intentions and emotions.” (p. 1155) How powerful is that! Not only do we reap the rewards of the positive emotion (love), but the negative, fear-based emotions appear to be “deactivated”.
As human beings, we know innately that the experience of Love is a higher energetic/ emotional feeling, whereas Fear ultimately drags us down. Neuroscience explains that we get a boost of adrenaline when acute fear/ stress initially hits (to help us run & escape from the saber-tooth tiger). However, Chronic Fear/ stress (as with chronic pain) triggers the release of cortisol from our adrenal cortex which increases B/P and blood glucose while suppressing our immune system. The result is that we end up increasing our susceptibility to infection and worsening the conditions of hypertension and diabetes. Definitely not the goal, if we are striving to heal pain and improve overall well-being.
Changing our mindset really can and does possess powerful, healing potential. These studies demonstrate that thoughts deeply influence the way our brains fire, directly affecting our well-being! We have the power to consciously direct our focus in a loving direction and not be manipulated by fear.
Time to FLIP the Script
Discard fear-based strategies and live a healing message motivated by loving thoughts and memories. By asking optimistic questions of ourselves and one another, hopeful thoughts can be remembered & relived more frequently, to ultimately rewire our brains and create a healthier body.
As such, I invite you to answer this question right now, “How do you feel, REALLY? … on a scale of 0-10 with 10 being the Best you have ever felt.” Courageously rooted in hope and LOVE, and harnessing positive psychology and neuroscience, this empowering vision is holistically supportive of our body, mind and spirit which naturally strive to achieve vitality and homeostasis in life. Now is the time to reclaim and focus that healing energy of Love in our daily lives!
"The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”"
—Socrates (from D. Millman's Way of the Peaceful Warrior)
Aalto University (2018). “Love and Fear Are Visible Across the Brain, Not Restricted to One Region.” NeuroscienceNews, 17 February 2018.
Bartels, A., & Zeki, S. (2004). The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. NeuroImage, 21(3), 1155–1166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2003.11.003
Evers, L. (2017). Comfort Quest- Nursing Pain through a Positive Lens. AHNA Beginnings, Aug 2017, Vol 37 No 4, p 6-7, 20-21.
Siegel, D. (2010). Mindsight. New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperback.
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