What’s the best thing we can do when we are in pain?
In a word, nothing. In two words, don’t panic. In two other words that are the same but are more positive and action oriented…be calm. Let me explain…when we experience a painful incident of any kind, alarm bells and whistles in the mind automatically go off, sending out all the necessary chemicals to repair damage and keep us as healthy as possible. The process is obviously far more advanced and detailed, but this is not what I want to discuss in this blog. I want to talk about our response to pain and how it can impact the severity of pain we experience.
We must first understand that pain is an emotion. It is an experience no different than any other experience we have. You can look this up for more information if you would like, but in brief, the definition of pain is “an unpleasant subjective experience with a sensory and an emotional component” (https://www.iasp-pain.org/publications/iasp-news/iasp-announces-revised-definition-of-pain/).
If we panic or add a stress producing emotion to pain such as anger or fear, it will increase the pain exponentially because it turns on the sympathetic nervous system which is where the fight/fight stress response is located. When the body is living in fight or flight, it is physiologically and psychologically impossible to heal or feel well.
When we allow anger, anxiety, and fear to take over, this feeds the cycle of pain. If you are a Star Wars fan, here is a powerful quote from Yoda, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” This being said, I hear people use the word “hate” all the time when it comes to their pain. I think this needs to be carefully examined because the words we use have great power.
Regarding chronic pain, our reaction to it is vital because the more emotion we add to the pain we are experiencing, the more we keep the alarm system alive in the body and the less chance we have for reducing our perception of the pain that we experience on a more regular basis compared to a temporary injury or illness.
My suggestion is to feel the pain. Truly feel it. Become aware of it as much as possible and sit with it without emotion. The benefit of sitting with and focusing on our pain and our sensation of pain in a different way than running from it or demonizing it, is that this allows the brain to have the information needed to turn on its natural regulation system effectively. If we do the opposite, we turn on the flight/flight response which further constricts muscles, impacts respiration rates, and changes circulation and breathing. The mind needs to learn that pain does not mean always mean danger. Welcome your pain the best you can to give your brain the best chance to regulate it, just like any other experience.
One of the most important things I have learned over the years managing my dystonia and pain (which you can read about in my 2 books) was that I had to stop running from my pain. I had to sit with it and feel it in a different way; a more calm and rational way. This may sound ludicrous or even maddening to some of you. I understand. I was first told this when I was still coming to terms with my new life, and in the midst of a terrible pain episode, so this message did not sit well with me at all. It made me angrier, which caused more muscle tension and pain. Back then, I didn’t understand how my emotions could impact my pain. In fact, I thought that if I got angry, it would flush my system of some of the pain. How wrong I was…
It is important to understand that we are wired to run from danger, and pain sends out a signal to the brain that we are in danger. If we have chronic pain, the danger system is almost always turned on. This is why our emotions surrounding pain are so important. It is our job to stop or slow down this built-in mechanism by changing our reaction to noxious stimuli because if we constantly react to the pain with an emotion, it creates a cycle that keeps pain alive. Below is a good image for how this works that I have shared in other blogs.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog about how I had a horrible pain episode while attending a college basketball game. Out of nowhere I was hit with blinding pain in my mid back, stuck in the stands with thousands of people. I wanted to run, but I could barely move and I knew that frantically leaving would make it worse. So, I sat with it as fans were going crazy all around me.
In my mind I went over all of the things I knew were important to do in that moment, panic being the last thing! I looked straight ahead watching the game, very passively, and mindfully focused on my breath. I said calming affirmations and a few prayers, and I visualized my body at rest and peace. If I resisted the pain, my body would have seized up more than it was, so I had to let go and find the rhythm of my breath. I basically went stoic; totally one with the pain. One way this is often described is the term “felt sense” where we go within to feel the pain to create a different relationship with it. I couldn’t get mad at it. It would get mad back at me. I had to welcome it and be one with it. I had to become friends with it so my body was not further alarmed and I could get out of there without more damage, which turned out to be the case. You can read that blog by clicking here.
A while ago I wrote an article called, Embrace the Suck of Life. I also wrote a section in the Adapting to Adversity chapter of my new book where I expand on this topic. If you would like to read the article, please click here. What this phrase means is that tough times (pain) are not to be ignored, denied, covered up, or masked with drugs, alcohol, food, poor relationships, and behavior where we deal with the suck of life (pain) in an emotionally reactive fashion. It means acknowledging that life is hard and filled with pitfalls (pain), and not resisting the bad things that happen to us because that will always increase our suffering. In other words, DON’T RUN FROM YOUR PAIN!!
As I have said, when feeling stressed or in pain, try to sit with it. If you run, you stay in fight or flight mode which increases adrenaline and stress and worsens our health. Allow yourself to acclimate to your situation without resistance. If we can learn to stop resisting what is, it leads to comfort in uncomfortable situations. We learn to accept what is happening in the moment, without panic, worry, fear, or anger. This then leads to easier acceptance of other life changes and challenges.
You can hate my message about sitting with your pain as much as you want, and I understand why you might feel this way. But I promise you that it is not just my opinion that sitting with pain will make it better. It is a scientific fact. Pain is an experience no different than any other experience. We can choose to react in a way so we suffer, or we can work on our mind to change our perception of pain so we can begin to heal and feel more at peace. The choice is ours. And as an additional note, hatred of me or my message about pain will only make the stress increase in your system and make it worse.
For all the numerous options available to help us manage pain differently, I encourage you to get my book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey and specifically check out Chapters 9-15, which are devoted to coping with and managing all sorts of pain in our lives. Even if you don’t have dystonia, this book is applicable to any physical or mental health condition. For even more on these topics, you can see my new book, Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges.
I would like to end this with one of my favorite affirmations that helps me with pain and unwanted emotions, or simply when life is not going as I want or planned. It comes from Louise Hay – “I relax into the flow of life and life flows through me with ease.”
And lastly, be grateful for your pain for this reason alone:
Without having experienced pain and sorrow, we would never
know how to truly experience the joys and pleasures in life.
– Author Anonymous –
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 and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges. 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 volunteer writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, and Patient Worthy. 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.