How to be happy when you’re in pain

October 7, 2019

While the traditional expression refers to beauty, we might change it to say, “pain is in the eye of the beholder.” This would explain the incredibly varied responses to pain that different individuals feel. Everyone knows somebody who screams at the prick of a finger or, alternatively, someone who fails to notice a broken bone. The reason for this is simple—pain is a result of both physical and neurological inputs.

According to Amy Wachholtz, PhD, Program Director of the Clinical Health Psychology PhD Program, “areas of the brain act as a volume button that determines how loud the brain processes the pain signals.” In other words, the mind can actually change how the body feels pain. Wachholtz explains that when a person is angry, depressed, or anxious, that person’s brain will register pain more intensely. 

The good news is that the opposite is also true: when people are engaged, grateful, or happy, their brains turn down the pain volume. This is great news for anyone experiencing pain—especially for those dealing with chronic pain.

portrait of Professor Amy Wachholtz
Director of the Biopsychosocial Pain Management Lab, Amy Wachholtz, PhD, conducts research in pain, addiction, and spirituality.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional

Wachholtz brings up a relatively simple example. Let’s say you wake up with a bruise and you can’t remember how you got it. Your body still experienced broken blood vessels, which signifies physical damage, but maybe you were busy or distracted, which kept your brain from paying attention to pain signals. 

When discussing the psychology of pain, Wachholtz brings up a Buddhist saying—”pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Since people process pain neurologically, they have at least some control over their pain. “Someone can still find joy within the context of a chronic pain disorder,” she said. There are two proven, practical methods for reducing how the brain processes pain: mindfulness and exercise.

woman with headache Photo by Claudia Barbosa from Pexels
Studies show that mood can increase or decrease the brain’s pain signals, according to Professor Amy Wachholtz, PhD, who researches how patients cope with pain.

Mindfulness and exercise change the way people process pain

These are both practices that CU Denver alum Tiffany Lord (BS ’08) promotes through her virtual yoga studio, Love & Asana. Tiffany, a migraine sufferer from an early age, offers mindfulness, meditation, and yoga training for people with chronic headaches and stress. “There is a hereditary component to the migraine disorder,” she said. After she “happily stumbled upon” yoga and practiced it consistently for 2-3 months, she noticed she hadn’t had a migraine during that whole time—“It was crazy.” 

Tiffany joined forces with neurologist Cristina Wohlgehagen, MD, founder of the International Headache Center, to create custom yoga programs as part of the holistic approach at IHC. “Yoga for migraines is a preventive maintenance tool to build resilience in the body emotionally and physically,” Tiffany said. When people are having a migraine attack, that is not necessarily the time to do yoga poses. However, meditation and breath work practices, which are also encompassed in yoga, may be beneficial. The idea is to prepare for the pain with mindfulness and exercise—the same techniques that Professor Wachholtz proposed. “These techniques, both clinically and in research, are fairly well established in pain treatment,” Wachholtz explains.

portrait of yoga teacher Tiffany Lord
Tiffany Lord, CU Denver graduate in International Business, started Love & Asana virtual yoga studio after suffering with migraines her entire life.

Yoga for chronic pain

Tiffany is aware of some of the research in pain psychology, including studies by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar. “Meditation,” she said, “when consistently practiced, increases the gray matter in the brain, especially in the areas of emotional response.” Her goal is to teach breathing techniques, yoga poses, and mindfulness as a way for migraine sufferers to manage the intensity, frequency, and characteristics of their migraines. Mindfulness is a technique in which people try to experience their sensations in the present moment—whether that’s smelling the scent of their morning coffee as it brews or looking at the orange-pink color of the sun as it sets. 

She teaches in a virtual studio, which she views as the perfect answer for people with chronic pain, “who sometimes don’t want to or just cannot leave their house.” One of Tiffany’s recent clients had been living in pain for several years and after multiple guided meditations appeared happier at the beginning of each session, instead of exhausted and depressed. She still has pain but she’s able to practice breathing techniques along with her custom meditation videos that help her relax. “Knowing she has a level of control over her own body and mind by using stress management tools like yoga has given her some contentment,” Tiffany said. 

It’s not always possible for people who have a headache to do yoga in the moment of pain. It’s also not possible for Tiffany to recommend the same yoga poses to everyone, because everyone’s body is different—“we’re not just talking about a floating head,” she said. Some yoga poses, however, do work for a lot of people, especially patients experiencing chronic pain: Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani), Child’s Pose (Balasana), and Corpse Pose (Savasana).

Tiffany practicing meditation
Tiffany works with the International Headache Center, teaching yoga and meditation to people with chronic migraines.

Master the mind, reduce your pain

Even if you have chronic pain, there is a way to be happy—“not fake happy but truly finding joy,” Wachholtz clarifies. Moderate exercise, even just a ten-minute evening stroll, can diminish the pain experience. Tiffany, of course, would recommend yoga.

The secret, however, is in your mindset. For example, patients who have been through twelve weeks of pain psychotherapy can actually change their brains, which has been shown through MRI scans taken before and after treatment. “The brain learns to change how to control pain signals,” Wachholtz said. “Patients feel more in control; that control gives them more confidence.” Ultimately, confidence gives them the ability to move more, which reconditions their body—and their minds. “By giving themselves more confidence, the brain dials down the pain because they can say it’s not threatening.”