Using Your Brain to Feel Less Pain

by Whitney James, M.D.

All humans have a set of nuclei in our brains called the amygdalae (plural for amygdala). The cortex, or outer surface of the brain — the surface with all the bumps and grooves — consists of four main lobes: the frontal cortex, the temporal cortex, the parietal cortex and the occipital cortex. 

The amygdalae sit at the tip of our temporal lobes just behind our temples, and these small groups of cells are responsible for our emotional responses to the external world. 

The amygdalae are an important center for the emotional dimension of pain and pain modulation. If you just found out you won the lottery and you stub your toe, no big deal. On the other hand, if you’re having a bad day, when you stub your toe, it really hurts. That is the amygdala at play. 

Most pain we feel starts in our legs, backs, arms and neck. That pain signal must travel up nerves to our spinal cord, where the signal must then be passed to a new nerve tract that carries the signal to our brain. Only when that signal arrives in our brain do we become aware of a sensation of pain. And almost immediately, the amygdalae will jump in to influence how we feel about that pain. 

Researchers have shown that our frontal cortex (the area of our brain directly behind our forehead) can enhance or diminish the amygdala’s role in how we interpret incoming pain signals. When frontal cortex neurons release GABA, an inhibitory or quieting neurotransmitter, in the amygdalae we feel less pain. Conversely, when the frontal cortex neurons release glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, in the amygdalae we feel more pain. 

How do we feel less pain?

The first step is being aware of how we are feeling — sad, happy, anxious, depressed — when a pain signal first arises in our consciousness. The next step is breathing. When we take a deep breath, we activate our parasympathetic (or rest and digest) nervous system, and this in turn helps our frontal cortex release GABA onto the cells of our amygdalae.

Finally, maintaining a positive emotional state will keep the GABA levels in your amygdalae high. The end result: less pain.