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Attention and Pain: Theory

In the previous blog you could practice shifting your attention. Today I 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 is first good to know 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 is difficult to keep your eyes away from a TV when it is 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 theory

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 (at one point) or broad (at several things)
  2. The intensity of your attention can differ.
  3. Your attention can be directed outward or inward.
  4. Attention to solid objects, or to intangible things like colors and thoughts.
  5. Attention can be directed to 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 track of your attention, 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 becomes easier and easier to keep your attention for a longer period of time.

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