Body Voices

Can chronic pain change your personality? I would know, I have been there

Gurugram artist and poet Nidhi Agrawal learnt through first-hand trauma how chronic pain can change one's personality, and how to find courage in one's tears.

By Nidhi Agrawal

All forms of physical pain, whether articulated or unspoken, have serious psychological and emotional consequences that we often overlook, and choose to suffer instead in silence.

My first episode of acute pancreatitis occurred when I was seven years old, growing up in Patna, Bihar. My parents had never heard of a pancreas disease, and had a hard time understanding my diagnosis and treatment. However, my parents never gave up on my situation.

The first acute pancreatitis episode felt like a knife slicing through my upper abdomen, with searing pain radiating to my back, greenish vomit, a quick pulse, a high fever, and nausea. I was admitted to a hospital in Ranchi. I vividly recall the frightening Intensive Care Units (ICUs), the elderly patients, the nurses pushing me to take injections, the needles stabbing my nerves, and more.

I was sent back to a hospital in Patna as soon as the doctors made the diagnosis. Later, I was referred to Delhi’s GB Pant Hospital for the surgery. I don’t recall those tumultuous times frame by frame, but I do recall the harrowing pain, the kind of pain that doesn’t let you either live or die. The symptoms persisted and I was operated two years later.

Photo: Nidhi Agrawal

My childhood was different, rather traumatic since I could see my dreams being crushed under the weight of physical and emotional pain. As life progressed, I kept getting persistent acute pancreatitis attacks, and I continued to juggle between managing pain and studies.

When I turned 18, the attacks became less frequent and I started leading a normal lifestyle. But, at age 21, when I had an accident and hurt my stomach, the dragon re-appeared, and another chronic pain cycle knocked on my door.

The pain was different this time; it did not radiate to the back, and I did not experience nausea, vomiting, or fever. By this time, I was doing my Bachelor’s in Mumbai. My doctor suggested a few blood tests and, as per the lab test reports, I was declared diabetic.

I was shattered and could not fathom this new challenge. I began having more symptoms and was given medications. The doctor suggested I completely rest for three to four months and asked me to follow a specific diet and lifestyle.

Photo: Nidhi Agrawal

What I learnt in this period is that emotions and pain are intricately linked. Physical and emotional pain share nearly identical nerve system circuits, as well as shared brain processes. As a result, it’s not unexpected that chronic pain is frequently related to emotional shifts.

Pain is a survival signal for the brain, indicating that it is time to fight or flee. The brain changes physically and chemically in reaction. This is accompanied by physiological changes such as a faster heart rate, increased blood flow to the muscles, and other stress responses. After transient discomfort, the body normally resolves these abnormalities and returns to normal, but persistent pain is a different story.

Chronic, persistent pain exacerbates these systemic and chemical brain alterations, resulting in significant psychological changes. These can have an effect on brain function over time, resulting in behavioural changes.

Further, the psychological impacts of persistent stress are not the only ones. Chronic pain, as well as the extended stress reaction that results from it, can cause heart problems, gastrointestinal abnormalities, and other long-term issues.

These experiences resulting from chronic pain can change your personality.

There are times when you feel defeated by your understanding of life, then there are times when you feel that “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding,” as Kahlil Gibran says.

And then, there are times when you find courage in your sacred tears.

Nidhi Agrawal with friends

In his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), American psychiatrist Bessel A. van der Kolk writes, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

My biggest challenge was to encounter my emotions and be more aware about myself. Of course, self-awareness is an unending process, but once you embark on the journey towards self-improvement and towards finding yourself, life becomes beautiful and you acquire the art of living in the present.

This practice helps uncover a true face, representing the wisdom that stimulates profound transformation and liberation. It reveals your fears, pain, and suffering, showing you that when you finally let these emotions arise and be, you begin to heal, overcome your fears, and attain love and happiness.

Nidhi Agrawal, 28, is a Gurugram-based communication design specialist. Her art, music and poetry stems from the distinct theories illustrated in the religious texts such as Vedas and Puranas including the concept of Ardhanareeswara. Her writing covers diverse topics from natural disasters, complex realism and psychological disorders to the profound affairs of day-to-day life.

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