Attention and Pain: Theory

Attention and Pain: Theory

7 min. reading time


Louis Zantema

23 April 2020

Louis is a GZ-Psychologist with a great passion for gaming. For him, a game training that offers therapy is the most valuable thing you can develop: especially for pain complaints, which are on the interesting intersection of body and mind. His aim is to make himself dispensable as a therapist.

In the previous blog you could practice shifting your attention. Today I will explain more about how your attention works, what can go wrong with pain, and what you can change about your attention yourself.

Two forms of attention

What's good to know first is that your attention can be directed in two ways. Our attention is usually 'automatically' directed. It happens automatically, without us noticing. Maybe you recognize that it's hard to keep your eyes away from a TV when it's on something. 

The second way of directing attention is 'consciously'. You can direct your attention yourself. Usually we really have to adjust our attention consciously when we are doing more boring tasks. Studying or doing homework, for example. 

With (chronic) pain it is often the case that the attention automatically goes to the pain. Logical, because pain is a warning! With chronic pain, you would prefer that the attention does not automatically go to it. There is often no good reason to feel pain all the time, but still your attention continues to go to it. 


Attention can change

Besides the fact that your attention can be adjusted automatically or consciously, your attention can also take different forms. 

  1. Yes attention can be narrow (on 1 point) or broad (on several things).
  2. The intensity of your attention may vary.
  3. Your attention may be directed outward or inward.
  4. Attention to solid objects, or to intangible things such as colours and thoughts.
  5. Attention can be focused on the different senses. 

What can you do with this yourself?

What many people do not know is that your attention can be trained. The attention you consciously direct can be trained just like a muscle. By regularly doing things that you really need to keep your attention on, the muscle of your attention becomes stronger and stronger. Start with training attention by doing things that just happen. For some people that is reading a book, watching a documentary (without a phone next to it!), for others perhaps meditating. Expand these things step by step and notice that it's getting easier and easier to keep your attention for a longer period of time.

Strong attention makes it easier to consciously focus less on your pain. 

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