Visualization and other tools to help us work through pain
I was recently talking with a client who suffers with dystonia and chronic pain like I do. She wanted to know how to work through her pain, especially those extra painful episodes. I was sharing with her different tools to use and the words flow, non-resistance, allowing, etc., also kept coming up in conversation. The reason I was using these particular words is because whenever we are in pain or under great stress, if we resist what is going on inside us or around us, we become rigid, which typically makes the pain or stress worse because our mind and body get stuck in fight/flight/freeze mode.
If we can instead learn to flow with pain, it reduces our emotional reaction to it which reduces the additional physical manifestation of symptoms. We must “go into the pain” and feel it rather than run from it or resist it in order to get through it. I wrote an article about this a few months ago about a severely painful experience I had called, My test to find relief in the midst of a serious pain episode.
As we were talking, along with tools for her to practice, I shared a couple of calming things to think about because visualization is incredibly powerful, especially when we are in a state of anxiety or panic, or any other kind of trauma. I shared the following story with her. It is a true-life story that I personally experienced and now use as a visual when I am having a hard time flowing with pain or anything else in life. I also use it as a way to remind myself that if we learn to trust the flow of life, we always end up where we need to be.
When I was in my early 20s, I worked at a school for special needs children. I was a childcare worker in a dormitory where 18 kids lived, all of whom came from very difficult inner-city backgrounds. We were kind of a go between from the child’s home and a psychiatric center or juvenile hall, with the goal to always get them back to their home or to a new home.
It was a very stressful job to say the least, and the children had many challenges, but we were not a lock down facility so it was as casual as we could possibly make it for them. Actually, the school was quite beautiful and very much like a small college campus. It even had a farm and a wildlife rehabilitation center. It was surrounded by woods, and across the street there was a beautiful pond and stream. Despite the beauty, stress and emotions always ran high. Restless and defiant behavior was common in the residence hall where I worked with 10-13 year-old boys.
In order to provide the kids with as many opportunities and learning experiences possible, we would occasionally take them on excursions off campus. One particular event was a half day canoe trip. Along with Kurt, the school’s outdoor activities director, I accompanied 12 kids who had earned this trip with good behavior.
We began just off campus at the edge of a slow-moving stream that meandered through the woods and eventually opened to a lake. Our plan was to canoe to the lake, have lunch, hike a little through the woods, and then return to campus by canoe. This is what happened, but not how we planned.
For some of the kids, this was their first time canoeing and it quickly became clear that the short lesson we gave them before we left didn’t help much. Some of the kids became restless which at times grew to animosity towards one another. This was something we were used to all the time, but having this happen while in canoes was more challenging than if we were in a controlled environment on campus. Despite all this, we were able to make it to the lake without any major mishaps. It was then that things dramatically changed.
It was drizzling most of the trip on the stream and then rain came down in buckets when we got to the lake. Several kids panicked and capsized their canoes. We now had two canoes flipped over and 4 crying, frightened kids in the water, not to mention several other kids who began to panic, fearing they too would capsize. For what seemed like hours, we eventually regained control of the situation.
When we got the kids and their capsized canoes to shore, they were too afraid to get back into their boats to paddle back. They were also too wet and cold for the long ride. Kurt had to abandon his canoe along with the other two canoes and walk them back to the school through the woods, leaving me with the remaining kids to guide back down the stream by myself.
At the end of a surprisingly uneventful two-hour canoe trip back to campus, the kids took hot showers and had a nice warm dinner. Not soon after, they fell asleep for the night, exhausted from the day’s events.
When my shift ended, on the way to my car I ran into Kurt and Laura, another outdoor activity staff member. They told me they were going to walk back to the lake to retrieve the three abandoned canoes. They didn’t want to wait until morning for fear they would be stolen. Although I was exhausted and really wanted to go home (I had an hour drive), I told him I would be happy to go with them and help. It would be much easier having a third person to paddle the canoe back instead of them having to tow it through the narrow stream in the dark.
Although we had flashlights, it was barely enough to help us see where we were walking because of the dark, cloudy sky. About halfway to the beached canoes, the woods began to light up in neon green. It became so bright that we didn’t need our flashlights anymore. Glow worms illuminated the trail as if they knew we needed their help. It was absolutely beautiful and unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was like something out of a science fiction film.
Once we reached the canoes, the clouds broke, exposing a bright, full moon and a sky filled with stars. It was an incredible sight being surrounded by neon green from the glow worms and then canopied by a huge, bright moon and diamond like stars.
Each of us took off in our canoe and as we approached the stream, I found myself feeling a bit anxious. Although the water moved very slowly, the stream was narrow and filled with overhanging limbs and rocks that jutted out from the water, not to mention the memory of the high stress that filled that very spot several hours earlier.
While I had a tight grip on my paddle and focused attention on the stream, I noticed that Kurt and Laura were in a very different state of mind. They were both lying on their backs in their canoes looking up at the sky. Considering the stream was so curvy, I thought they were crazy, but they looked so comfortable. I eventually gathered up the courage to do the same. In a very short time, all of my fears vanished and a sense of calm came over me. Everything became very peaceful and I began to feel a comforting sense of warmth and protection.
The sea of stars was like a planetarium. The glow worms surrounding us looked like thousands of green lanterns and the sound of tree frogs was like a symphony. The most remarkable thing was that we didn’t have to use our paddles at all to get down the stream. It took us exactly where we needed to go, never once hitting a rock or touching an overhanging limb. The less we interfered, the easier the ride home. It was one of the most peaceful experiences of my life! It felt as if we were in the hands of something much bigger than us that guided our canoes where we needed to go. Something was keeping us safe and allowing us to view the amazing beauty that engulfed us. I didn’t want it to end.
When we reached our destination and put the canoes away, it was time to say goodnight to Kurt and Laura. However, none of us could speak. We were still in absolute awe of what we just experienced. We looked at each other trying to find the right words and nothing came out of our mouths…but nothing had to be said. We were all feeling the exact same thing, so with a smile and nod of our heads, we parted ways. We never spoke of this event with each other again, but we became closer friends all thanks to this special night.
What I learned from this experience, almost 30 years ago, is that often in life the less we intervene and relax into the flow of life and let go of our fears and barriers that appear to be in our way, the smoother the journey and the more we are able to fully enjoy all of life’s beautiful moments.
This is how it is with pain and any other struggle in life. If we resist what is, we feel more of what we are resisting. If we want to ease our suffering, we MUST learn to flow with it, just as we allowed the stream to take us where we needed to go, without us having to do anything but sit back and enjoy the ride.
Whatever we resist persists, and emotional and physical pain follows. When we can learn to go into the pain, the quicker it dissipates. This is not an easy lesson and comes with much practice, but once we get the lesson and apply it, the stressors of life are far less of a burden.
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.