Teaching an old dog new tricks

It was music to my ears today when he told me he’d cut back the analgesics. This lovely man I’m working with. Like most people he thought he’d be stuck with the pain forever.

And the more I search the research, the more I realise that the same issues that set us up for the experience of pain, are the same ones that play a role in the creation of other side-effects. Anticipation, expectation, fear, anxiety and other feelings, previous experience, learning. Did you know for example the very same stimulus can create a pain response in some people and not others? The incredible thing is it all depends on what the person is told at the time. It makes it pretty important what the people around us say then, doesn’t it.

Conditioning it’s called. And because it’s not something we deliberately set out to create, we can’t consciously fix it either. We have to work at a deeper level and break the associations.

And it’s not just reserved for pain and side-effects either. I’m currently watching it with my daughter. Coughing for the last few weeks, it’s one of the ‘symptoms’ that accompanies cystic fibrosis. But it’s not normal for her. She came up all clear of infection. Perhaps it’s allergies. Or perhaps it’s just that she’s becoming conditioned. The coughing starts as she goes to bed. Almost an association. Putting her head on the pillow seems to trigger the response. And so we’re working to break the association to make sure it doesn’t become an ingrained habit. A bit of Vicks, a warm cup of tea and a homeopathic and it seems to do the trick. I am grateful for the good night’s sleep. Not to mention the fact that she is learning there are so many things she can do to help herself.

Most people don’t realise we can be taught to expect pain just like Pavlov’s dogs. The beautiful thing is it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks…

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