Finding peace in the midst of pain
I live with chronic, persistent pain from a neurological movement disorder called dystonia, which I have had for nearly 20 years. Prior to developing it, I experienced pain throughout my life, most of which came from many from sports injuries. The pain that came with dystonia was a completely different beast entirely. Honestly, I didn’t realize pain that awful existed.
Everyone has of course experienced pain in their life from one degree to another. However, the way we process pain and how that pain impacts our lives is different from person to person. It is my belief that the way we respond to pain (physical or emotional) can have a significant effect on how well we cope with pain, and even determine the level of pain we experience. The reason I say this is because pain is an emotional experience in the brain. In other words, if you hurt your back, you actually feel the pain in the brain. Not in the back itself (please click here to see my article called, The impact stress and emotions have on our health)
With physical and emotional pain, the same areas of the brain are activated. Pain is not a sense, like touch, sight, or hearing. However, the neural, blood, and immune pathways between brain and body are tagged with body location information, which is why we “feel” or link pain to a body part.
Because pain is primarily an emotional experience, we often have an emotional reaction to it when it occurs, such as anger, fear, sadness, helplessness, depression, and anxiousness. None of these emotions are pleasant and the human brain is wired to either fight against or run from these adverse feelings or situations, also known as the fight or flight response.
This is a healthy response to have in the short term when we are in danger, but if we live in this state all the time, it creates chronic stress which is very unhealthy. It is very common for people with things like pain and long term health conditions, financial distress, relationship issues, etc., to live in a highly stressed body. This makes it very difficult for the body to perform optimally and for it to heal. Chronic fight or flight can also cause thinking to become cloudy, making it difficult to make rational decisions. To read more about stress, stress management, and pain, please check out Chapters 8 and 9 of my book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey.
Fight or flight is an important built in mechanism in the body, but we have been conditioned to live like this when we are not supposed to. We have been taught to run from or resist things that don’t feel good, instead of FEELING things that are unpleasant. If we can learn to resist less and allow ourselves to feel more of what we experience, rather than run from what doesn’t feel good, it can have a very beneficial impact on our health because when we learn to “sit with” problems, this helps them recede or resolve (click here to see my article about sitting with pain to help overcome pain). If we instead allow the fight or flight response to kick in, this stress, over time, may manifest into or prolong physical illness.
Medication can help us temporarily, but it won’t take away the unresolved feelings that are never expressed or really felt. In order to resolve feelings such as grief, anger, and resentment, and embrace joy and happiness, we have to really feel these things in the body. This is why it is so helpful to “sit with” pain and develop a new relationship with it. No different than you would with another person during conflict resolution. Doing this may hurt for a little while because we are not used to it, but it can offer relief and the emergence of a new perspective about ourselves and others, and a different experience of pain; which, hopefully of course, is less pain. Please don’t mistake this as me saying your pain is in your head. Quite the contrary, but our emotional reaction to pain can most definitely make it better or worse.
With this in mind, the less of an additional, conscious emotional response we have on top of that which is automatic, the more tolerable the pain will be in the moment and long-term. In other words, the less we react to pain in an emotional way (anger, hatred, sadness, etc.) the less destructive the pain will be. Too many of us in pain experience an emotional and physical cycle like the following… we have pain, then fear, adrenaline production, anger, then pain again, fear, adrenaline, pain, etc. This cycle, or something similar to it, keeps pain alive and constant until we intercept or break the cycle and learn to sit with the pain differently than we have been.
We need to change our emotional responses to create new outcomes, and the only way to build the neural pathways in the brain necessary to change our perception of pain, is to change our habits, judgments, and memories of painful life experiences. For more on this, please see the following video by Joe Dispenza called, Learn how to control your mind.
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015) and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Patient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.