The Brain on Pain: Limbic System

The limbic system is made up of a group of structures (like the amygdala and hippocampus) all clustered around the thalamus, your body’s information relay station.

Limbic structures contribute to memory processing, emotional responses and aggression while responding to danger or pain. In other words, the limbic system raises our internal alarms in the face of danger and also helps us decide how we emotionally want to respond. Processing of painful (and pleasant) emotions like fear, anger, and exhilaration can all be credited to the brain’s limbic system. 

The amygdala plays an important role in the emotional dimension of pain, signaling to the brain that a threat has been detected and generating feelings of anxiety, depression, and  learned fear (that creeping, unpleasant feeling of fright we experience when reliving a scary experience).

The amygdala also contributes to pain-related decision-making that often follows an emotional response.

Similarly, the hippocampus (the learning and memory center of the brain) is also involved in the behavioral and emotional response to pain. Recent research has even shown that the hippocampus is so important to modulating the pain experience, that those with a reduction in the volume of their hippocampus have been shown to experience worse cases of chronic pain and depression.

So, let’s put this all together.

Let's say you got stung by a bee, or stubbed your toe while navigating a dark room. What do you usually feel? Most of us would probably experience feelings of unpleasantness, discomfort, and of course pain. For a split second (or more) you might find yourself frozen in place, trying to process your next move. Your body might get increasingly hot from anger, your heart rate will increase, and you might even feel disconnected from your body momentarily. All of this can be attributed to your limbic system doing its assigned work.

Why is this so important?

Well, negative emotions generated by the limbic system actually bias attention towards pain, which then naturally increases its unpleasantness. So, that anger you might feel (thanks to your amygdala) from stubbing your toe, is actually increasing the sensation of pain within your body. Yep, I said that correctly: anger, sadness, fear and other negative emotions actually influence pain perception in a way that exacerbates anguish and suffering!

Now, I am not saying you have to stop yourself from feeling angry or scared after you get stung by a bee (that would be nearly impossible!). But what I am saying is that self-awareness is a magical tool. If you can manage or control your emotional response to painful stimuli in any way - we encourage you to do it! Especially if it means pain relief.

So next time you stub your toe or get stung by a bee, hug your loved ones close (immediate happiness!) or turn on your favorite song (the one that makes you want to dance!), because it may very well limit the pain-level of that bee sting or stubbed toe. 

Champion Spotlight

Ever seen a popstar fall on stage and immediately get back up and start performing again?

July 2007, Beyonce was mid-choreography on her third solo tour, The Beyonce Experience when she slipped down a steep flight of stairs, got up, and kept performing like nothing had happened. The resilient Queen Bee certainly had her limbic system in full gear prepared to respond to her accident.

Yet, it's not always about the falling down, but rather the getting up.

Undoubtedly, Beyonce felt a range of painful emotions following her fall. Yet, singing and dancing as she does best likely diminished Beyonce’s pain response to the point where she could continue putting on an incredible performance for her sold out stadium of fans!

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