January 13, 2016

The Feedback Loop of Physical Pain & Emotional Suffering: Lessons from a Brain Injury.

colorful brain

A concussion, also known as a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI), is a brain injury that shakes the brain inside of the skull.

However, anyone who has ever experienced a concussion will tell you that there is absolutely nothing mild about it.

After two back-to-back concussions in a six-month period, I experienced a collection of symptoms. Confusion, fogginess, pounding headaches, feelings of loss, retrograde amnesia, intensified emotions, and physical exhaustion.

This was an alleged death diagnosis to receive three weeks prior to graduating from my Master’s program. “A broken brain. What if I never get better?” I thought. “What if I’m cognitively impaired on some subtle level for the rest of my life?” Despair soon after set in. My headaches continued to get worse. One month later, my pulse ached to the point where the pressure grew almost unbearable. I identified my two biggest post-concussive triggers: thinking and physical activity. I felt unequivocally cut off from the human race.

Regardless of the trials that we are suffering through, so much of the recovery process is influenced by the daily stories that we tell ourselves.

By attaching myself to the belief that I would never recover, I drastically increased my anxiety. In turn, my anxiety exacerbated my headaches, aggravated my insomnia, and profoundly enhanced my feelings of hopelessness. These accrued ruminations caused my body to release stress hormones, which really did inhibit my ability to recover efficiently. My fears hindered my ability to function, which seemed to validate my self-defeating beliefs that I had internalized as an absolute truth. The by-products of these stress hormones enhanced my feelings of fatigue, depression, and lastly my short-term memory. This, in turn, disrupted the healing process and caused lingering symptoms to remain in my body.

I think that this vicious cycle can be applied to any form of human pain.

Everything in life is inter-connected. There is always a feedback loop. The body, mind and soul all work together to remain in homeostasis. Thus, physical pain will also cause emotional suffering.

The reverse is also true: mental suffering will also cause physical pain. Basically, the body will respond to what it is being told. When this occurs, perspective becomes lost.

In my circumstance, my “what ifs” were not curbing my suffering for tomorrow, they were only enhancing my post-concussion symptoms in the present moment. This mental anguish was stealing energy from my body that I did not have. It was a vicious cycle, and one that was inviting more pain into my life. Instead of obsessing about my recovery, I needed to fix what I could and accept what I could not.

Acceptance can be an overly ambiguous word. In my experience, it means the ability to see reality for what it is and adapt accordingly. Is it really relevant whether or not your thoughts are accurate, or should the focus of our energy be on whether or not these thoughts are beneficial for our overall wellbeing?

With my concussion, honing in on the thought that subtle cognitive impairments were a long-term possibility was counterproductive. It was sapping motivation, action, and my chance of living in peace. Although long-term symptamology was a possibility, it was not helping me create a meaningful reality. It was time to start focusing on the pieces that I could change. The rest was not in my hands.

This is a theme that I have seen repeat itself many times in life. It is easy to get caught up in our own subjective reality and lose track of the big picture. When this happens for too long, we become mired in our own misery.

What helped me gain perspective in my own life, and overcome my own denial, was halting my vain attempts at emotion suppression and attempting to view these feelings as raw data. It was through, in an empathetic and matter-of-fact way, noticing and naming the emotion that I was experiencing. Obviously this is easier said than done. However, it takes a lot more work to fight and avoid these emotions than it does to genuinely observe and accept them.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that when you name and observe the sensations that are happening inside of you, it reduces the impact that these feelings have. One of the reasons for this is because when you name what is happening inside of you, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (the part of the cortex that is in charge of analytical thoughts) becomes activated. When this occurs, the activity in the amygdala (the emotional system of the brain) decreases.

This is brain plasticity at its finest.

Over time, with practice, it is possible to strengthen neural networks in your brain, while becoming more accepting of what is happening around you. Once this acceptance becomes internalized, it is easier to deal with the unavoidable stressors that we will always have around us. Once we have this acceptance, we have more power in how we respond and how we react to life.

For me, this basically became the difference between “I notice a sensation of ‘feeling messed up’ in this moment” versus “I am messed up.” Once this started happening, I noticed I was in a better position to make decisions. After all, how can you make cognizant decisions if you do not consciously know what to base them off of? This is emotional acceptance at its core.

Advances in science show that post-concussive symptoms can persist for a long time, but this does not mean that you do not have choices. Empirical research also shows that the individuals who learn to adapt have the highest success rates.

This concept can apply to any painful experience in life. Whether it is a physical struggle or an emotional struggle, creating distance between yourself and your thoughts will cause you to stop running in proverbial circles. Hamster wheels are the worst. When you step back from the insanity of your mind, over time, the pull of negativity can have less of an impact on both your physical and psychological well-being.

As time goes on, I am learning to notice my feelings as they come and go. I am discovering that you don’t have to take all of your thoughts seriously. Through practice, I have learned to become less attached to outcomes that are arbitrarily defined.

Although many advances have been made, science has a long way to go before concussions are understood. For those who know someone who is struggling with a concussion or brain injury, it is more than likely than a disruption of the self has taken place. By this I mean, physiological changes have disrupted the normal emotional, behavioral, and cognitive processes that weave the idea of self together.

You become, to a certain degree, a stranger in your own body. Thus, empathy, not sympathy, is needed.

It is difficult to articulate and reflect the nuanced and subtle changes that distance you, at least temporarily, from your former self. It is both jarring and unsettling. It also makes it difficult to relate to other people. Thus, if those in recovery cannot comprehend precisely what is happening, they will not expect you to either.

Ultimately, it does not matter if you cannot relate, it matters that you are unconditionally there.



1. Seltzer, M. E. (2007, November 6). Harassing the Brain’s Power to Adapt After Injury.

2. Valeo, T. (2003, September). When Labeling an Emotion Quiets It.



Relephant Read:

23 Things that Concussion Victims & Empaths Have in Common.


Author: Angela Blesener

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Aliona Sorocov on Pixoto.

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