Tips for Pain Coping, by Dr. Z

I have an admission: I am a Nature Nerd.

Always have been, probably always will be. 

You can regularly find me outside with my butterfly guide, tromping through tall grass and lagging behind on hikes waiting for a butterfly to land.


Getting outside can be helpful for people living with chronic pain and health conditions for many reasons:


1) Serotonin: People with chronic pain & illness tend to experience a mood crash, especially if they're stuck inside and unable to work or play. Exposure to sunlight increases the brain's production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. More sunlight = higher serotonin = better mood! When we're happy, pain actually feels less bad.


2) Distraction: It's easy to focus on pain and illness, but this hyper-attention actually makes us feel worse. A simple, effective pain-coping technique is to try to focus on something other than pain, especially something you find interesting or engaging. Regulating attention can actually affect the experience of pain (see: Gate Control Theory of pain, Resources page.)


3) Movement: Exercise and activity increase serotonin, get muscles & joints moving, improve mood, and can help desensitize the brain once it's trapped in a pain cycle (see: How Pain Works + Sensitization, Resources page). Walking outside for just 10 minutes a day is a great start.


If you or your patients have been stuck inside with pain or illness, consider grabbing a butterfly guide and go outside! (This one is portable, durable, and has great illustrations.) Just having a hobby and something to look forward to can be therapeutic.


 Here are some butterflies I've found in the Bay Area: 


 The Red Admiral is a medium sized butterfly that can be found year-round. She usually hangs out by the banks of rivers and streams, like the stream running through Redwood Regional Park. You can recognize her by the reddish-orange band across her wings.

 The Pipevine Swallowtail lays eggs on a plant called the Dutchman's Pipe, and emerges from its chrysalis in April. Males are a beautiful metallic blue-black, and females are brown with white spots. They can be found in moist areas like Tilden's Botanical Garden. (This one landed on the ground at my feet!)


The Common Buckeye is easily recognizable by her "eye spots." It's thought that eye spots prevent predation by birds by making the butterfly look like a larger animal, like an owl. Buckeyes can be found year 'round, often sitting in the middle of a trail. 



 The Sara Orangetip is a fast-fluttering butterfly found exclusively on the west coast. She likes fields, meadows and open woodlands. Look for the bright orange flash on the inside of her wings as she flies. If anyone knows who Sara is, please tell me!




The Western Tiger Swallowtail is one of the largest butterflies in the Bay Area. She's easily confused with the (also yellow) Anise Swallowtail, but can be distinguished by the four black stripes on her upper wing. If you catch her resting, you can see blue and orange spots along her tail. 



The Mourning Cloak, otherwise known as the Camberwell Beauty, is one of the most stunning Bay Area butterflies. Her inner wings are a deep-maroon color that isn't quite red and isn't quite brown, ridged with a ring of gold - and she appears black in flight. These beauties are most conspicuous in late winter, when few other butterflies are flitting. They are thought to be the longest-living butterflies, surviving up to one year.


This little critter (front view) is a Chalcedon (pronounced kal-ce-don) Checkerspot. She's a black-yellow-orange spotted butterfly that likes sagebrush flats, chaparral, and open forests. This one was spotted by Putah Creek in Pope Valley, California. She has gorgeous yellow antennae that she uses both for smell (flowers, mates) and for balance. Butterflies have clubbed antennae, while moths typically have feathery antennae. This distinction is a great way to tell them apart!