Here we go again, another high-profile arrest for DUI, linked to prescription drugs for pain medication. This time it’s Tiger Woods. Frankly, we’re lucky it’s an arrest and not a death.
What’s really going on? Why are so many people in so much pain? It’s everywhere, at all levels of our society. As pain leads to prescription opioid use, leads to opioid abuse, leads to heroin use, overdose and death, it’s reached epidemic proportions: 64,000 Americans died from opioid overdose in 2016, with public health experts estimating that more than 500,000 could die over the next ten years.
This epidemic is partly due to chronic stress being at an all-time high in our culture. Millennials are said to be unlikely to ever top the financial success of their parents and many are living at home for extended periods of time, leading to anxiety and depression about their future. One in five college students are on meds to manage anxiety or depression. There is a growing unease across the country at the shrinking of the middle and working classes, growth of the chronically unemployed, as well as the rise of robots displacing factory jobs. Human beings have a fundamental need to be needed and accepted. Our society is failing to provide that.
The explanation of how pain works lies with how the brain is wired: the emotional brain (also called the midbrain or limbic system) drives us toward reward and away from danger. The reptilian brain does the same thing. Emotions are neurochemicals that travel from our brain into our body. If we allow ourselves to feel them, we learn from them on either a conscious or unconscious level and those chemicals get processed and go away. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel them, these chemicals stay in our bodies. Over time, having a body full of unprocessed emotions causes inflammation, which leads to disease. What kinds of emotions do we not want to experience? To name a handful: shame, fear, anxiety, depression. Not being allowed to express certain emotions as children carries over into adulthood.
The primitive brain doesn’t understand the difference between an external event and an internal one. It doesn’t understand that the brain needs to process an emotion. Instead it wants to hide from scary thoughts or emotions by freezing or fighting against them. Freezing tightens the muscles in our back. Anytime our emotional brain wants to drive us away from danger it also contracts the muscles in our back. When it wants to get a reward, our back muscles calm down and we can reach out to claim it. Think about your own life for a moment. When you get ‘away’ messages and when you get ‘toward’ messages? Do you have more ‘away’ messages than ‘toward’? If you’re anxious or fearful or chronically stressed, then you probably have more ‘away’ messages. You may have an overload of neurochemicals in your system.
Our bodies react emotionally to everything, whether we are interacting with another person or thinking our own thoughts. The reptilian and emotional brains are vulnerable to the negative thoughts we send our own way. Researchers say we think 50,000 thoughts a day, 80 percent are about ourselves, and most of those are negative. Think of what this is doing to our brains over a lifetime.
Our bodies use the same circuitry whether we have physical pain or emotional pain. Over time, if we’ve got a buildup of unprocessed ‘away’ emotions it leads to chronic stress. This chronic stress is over-activating our back muscles. Throw in the physical injuries and accidents that we accumulate over the years and it’s small wonder we have so much back pain. Cortisone—the fight or flight hormone—does damage in other parts of our bodies as well, for example, there’s a direct link from high cortisone levels to heart attack.
Ironically, men could be more vulnerable because of the societal stigma surrounding men and emotions. Men are supposed to “take it like a man”. As defined by Wiktionary, that means to “respond to pain, hardship, adversity or emotional distress in a stereotypical masculine manner, especially without question, crying, complaining or becoming emotional.” As a society, we discourage boys from connecting to their bodies. In doing so, we give them a decreased chance of survival, as well as assuring that they live with locked-in trauma for the rest of their lives with no way to release it.
This is the first in a two-part series. The second part will look at how our school system contributes to the prescription pain medication problem as well as finding solutions.
Elizabeth Gould is the author of “Your Best Health by Friday: How to Overcome Anxiety, Depression, Stress, Trauma, PTSD, and Chronic Illness” (Rincon Star Press, November 2017, available at lulu.com.) Elizabeth is the founder of Right Brain University. She lives in Santa Barbara, California.