Emotions are pigments that color our lives. They also directly and substantially contribute to our experience of physical pain, something we treat often in neurosurgery. A painful stimulus in our periphery travels and synapses in the dorsal column of our spinal cord. The signal is then passed along and ultimately travels to and through the periaqueductal gray matter before synapsing in the thalamus. From the thalamus, the signal travels to and through our anterior cingulate gyrus, insula, amygdala and medial temporal lobe prior to reaching it’s final conscious state in our frontal and parietal cortices. It is important to differentiate the actual signal of the pain from what we do with that signal in our brain. Our limbic system can amplify or quiet incoming pain signals. Negative emotions amplify pain signals, positive emotions quiet them. In order to thrive in any circumstance, including chronic pain, tapping into positive emotions and memories can be medicine in and of itself. Conversely, living in fear, helplessness and hopelessness are literally toxic to our wellbeing.
How can we tap into positive emotional states?
First, we can remember them. Think about your favorite thing to do as a kid. Who was your favorite family member or friend growing up? How did they make you feel? Can you remember a time when you couldn’t stop laughing? Where were you? Who were you with? Did you feel light afterwards?
Second, we can practice them. Start with doing things that have previously made you feel good, and then expand from there. Notice how you feel in different environments and with different people, and put yourself in the environments with people who help you feel your best. Practice actions that make you feel content, at peace, and happy. Make a daily gratitude list.
Finally, we can plan them. Set aside time to plan for something you love, something you know will make you happy, and get to work making it happen.