We all want to avoid pain; it is encoded into our DNA as a means of self-protection. Whether we make the extra trip to the medicine cabinet to ease the physical pain of a headache or tip back a larger than normal pour of chardonnay to ease the emotional pain of a heartbreak, we seek to numb that which hurts us. We are easily consumed with the fact that it hurts and our means of stopping it, we often fail to consider why it hurts.
What is the point of pain, anyway? To discover why we are in pain, we cannot continually run from it. We have to sit with it and feel it. As much as we wish otherwise, we also cannot selectively numb. When one ache is dulled, other things are dulled as well. We can temporarily numb the pain of a heartbreak with a glass or four of wine, but we also numb our experience of and desire for joy. We might ease a headache, but we also might be covering the discomfort of a stiff back or sore knees that we never knew had been bothering us. You might be asking why this would ever be a problem. Less pain is always good, right? Well, no. Even setting aside the risk of addiction when we abuse medications or alcohol, there are other reasons that continually numbing the pain can be counter-productive. Here is the annoying, (literally) uncomfortable truth: 99% of the time, the pain is trying to tell us something. It is trying to teach us a lesson that we need to correct. It might be your sore back from running on concrete trying to tell you to take a lap through a soft park trail occasionally or it might be the ache of a toxic relationship trying to tell you to break free—if only we were not too numb to feel and listen.
I promise I am no masochist. I am not interested in anyone feeling more pain than necessary. Feeling pain is just about the hardest spot a person can be in and I have done my share of numbing pain from my body and my soul. The good news is that while pain is inevitable in our lives, suffering is optional. Suffering is how we emotionally and cognitively respond to pain. It is the catastrophizing of the pain: “I cannot handle this!”, “This will never end!” Suffering is the helplessness in the face of pain. Catherine Bushnell at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Bethesda explains how our emotional state impacts our experience of pain. A negative emotional state increases the experience of pain (suffering), while a positive emotional state decreases the experience of pain (recovery). Her work focuses on those experiencing chronic physical pain. I believe, however, that the same can be said of emotional pain be it grief, loss, trauma or depression.
When we allow ourselves to 1. feel the pain and then, 2. become curious about what the pain is trying to tell us, we are intentionally disrupting the cycle of helplessness. We become empowered in the face of pain as we actively learn from it instead of only passively suffer from it. We might still feel the pain, but the suffering is alleviated.
In our next post, we will discuss positive self talk and how reframing can help to alleviate suffering in the midst of pain.