Thursday, November 8, 2007

Pain for Dummies – Part IX

Or: what’s the economy got to do with pain?

Economics is a difficult field to study. Making accurate predictions is hard because human behaviour and decision making are so erratic it’s beyond belief. The emerging field of neuroeconomics is trying to rectify that situation by looking at the brain during decision making processes. Some of the findings are really scary – people prefer short term gain over long term gain for example. Doesn’t bode well for things like working on issues like climate change.

But this blog is about pain – your pain – so how does economics help us deal with it?
I’ve written about the positive effects of work on pain by providing a source of distraction.
But what I want to explore now is one of the basic premises of the science of economics: people react to external factors (without necessarily being aware of them) .
Or: your environment influences your behavior – much more than you know.

Consider my own example: I like to move. I like to exercise. But for the past few years my external environment "didn't let me". There simply was no incentive for me to take care of my own body. I knew that I should've been doing something - but was literally unable to follow my own advice. ;-)
After changing jobs and the place where I live the situation improved dramatically and now "I'm back"!

Even more dramatic are some of the experiments of the 60’s in social psychology:
Zimbardo and Milgram took well adjusted people and put them in difficult situations – Zimbardo used a made up prison environment and Milgram used an authority figure – and look what happened.
Experiments like this show that everyone of us has a range of possible behaviors within him or her – if they are triggered depends on the circumstances we encounter in life.

It’s like the old debate over nature and nurture. Some out there – adherents of the black and white world view still talk about nature vs. nurture. But that’s nonsense: it’s genes and how the environment acts to activate them. If you have a genetic disposition to be afraid of water and you live in the desert those genes are never activated. It’s the combination that determines what happens.

The same with you and your pain: if you are more likely to develop chronic pain due to a genetic disadvantage you have to work on the “nurture” part – that is your environment to reduce the impact. You can’t change your genes – yet – but you can try to lower the chance of those genes being expressed (the fancy way of saying “activated”).
Work on developing helpful coping strategies for example – the pain itself doesn’t necessarily go away – but the impact it has on your life is greatly reduced. Work on distracting yourself – don’t let the pain rule your life.

If you are prone to develop stress related diseases – again: coping, relaxation and distraction are key. But here is where it gets interesting:
“de-stress” your environment – i.e. your surroundings at work and at home.
Peripheral vision works by checking your surroundings for (sudden) movement and drawing your attention towards it; it is one of the systems we have that helps to protect us from dangerous predators – sabre tooth tigers and the like. Since those aren’t around anymore it now reacts to everything that moves – decidedly unhelpful in our modern world.
If your desk or workspace is too open to such intrusions – close it of. Walls are there for a reason!

The same applies to your desk itself: to much clutter is unhelpful – “visual clutter” is enormously distracting. Your brain scans all the items lying around and uses up a lot of energy doing that. That’s why we have bookshelves, cabinets and the like at home – when everything is in it’s place the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed.

Use indirect lighting to create “mood”. Direct light is very harsh – indirect lighting creates softer light which most people find pleasing. Color is another great way to “de-stress” your surroundings. You can choose warm (yellow, red) or cold ones (blue).

Gentle Thoughts

One of my favorites is smells: they are very powerful since they are directly channeled into the brain – not having to go through several processing steps like the other senses. It all depends on what you like – but give it a try and find something that’s just right for you.
Same with music – that’s why there are songs for driving, working out, … – the rhythms are able to influence your heart rate.

There are of course things you simply can’t change – but try to find workarounds wherever possible. Know your strengths and build on them – manage your weaknesses.
Use Metacognition to identify which things, objects and situations in your daily life cause problems and work on changing their impact.

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