Healthy Beginnings

Why do We Avoid Pain and Suffering?

Living a Life with Pain

“There is no doubt that pain hurts physically and emotionally, but it isn’t the pain itself, but rather our response to the pain, that contributes to increased suffering. Trying to avoid our thoughts about pain by suppressing them often can strengthen the pain we are experiencing versus diminishing it.”

Chronic pain is a problem impacting approximately 100 million Americans, more than those affected by diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. Increasing awareness is turning to the opioid crisis in America with medications commonly being the front line treatment for chronic pain. The goal of most prescription pain medication is to reduce pain sensations through the use of painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-depressants. The concern is significant harm may result in using these medications long-term with risk of dependency or addiction, increased mortality rates and disability. But why do we try to avoid the experience of pain? If you think about pain, it serves a needed function by alerting us to injuries such a broken bone or a wound. Emotional pain alerts us to feelings of anxiety, and when we may need to flight or flee or do something to improve our mood. Often, physical chronic pain is viewed as solely a physical sensation, but there are psychological aspects as well.

As a clinical psychologist I often hear, “If I could just get my pain to go away and go back to the way I was before, I would be okay.” Essentially, that is the goal of modern medicine – to find the procedure, surgery or medication to “cure” or reduce pain and possibly restore the person to optimal functioning. But for some people this is not a realistic option because, in many cases, people have a condition or injury that is not “curable” but rather something the person must learn to live and cope with.

So if we cannot get rid of pain altogether, how do we live a life WITH pain? How do we adapt or cope with our new normal? Leading us to the question of, what do we want our lives to be about? If pain has been the focus for so long we can alter our lives in ways to avoid the experience of pain in hopes of becoming pain free. As a result, we tend to stop doing pleasurable activities, lose intimate relationships, become more isolated and may feel depressed and anxious. The more we attempt to avoid pain and the related thoughts, emotions and activities, the more constrained our lives become. Often, getting rid of the pain is not the realistic answer, but instead expanding our lives enough so we can live the life we desire WITH pain. There is no doubt that pain hurts physically and emotionally, but it isn’t the pain itself, but rather our response to the pain, that contributes to increased suffering. Trying to avoid our thoughts about pain by suppressing them often can strengthen the pain we are experiencing versus diminishing it.

I wrote about mindfulness a few months back, but this approach involves practicing how to redirect our attention back to the here and now. Think of your thoughts as a radio. You don’t want to try and turn the radio off, you want to change the way you listen or tune into the radio. Our thoughts may come across the radio loud and clear, but we can learn how to turn down the volume by changing the way we listen. For example, to begin the practice sit down in a chair and ask yourself, what are you experiencing in this moment? What thoughts, feelings and physical sensations (even pain) are you experiencing right now? Allow yourself to observe and describe these feelings without trying to change them. During this experience, you might want to bring your sensations to your breath. Maybe say to yourself “relax” on each outward breath. Finally, expand your awareness to you feeling your whole body breathing. If you are feeling pain, something strong, maybe say to yourself, “Okay, just let me feel this no matter how hard it is.” Allow yourself to breathe with these feelings, and if your mind wanders to your thoughts or your pain just acknowledge and let go of them and bring your attention back to your breath. Learning to turn into our pain, instead of turning away, can help us face difficult parts of our lives without losing sight of the things that are most important to us. Don’t lose hope, you don’t have to let pain define you, and there is always hope to live the life you want WITH pain.

For more information, call Integrated Sleep and Wellness at 775-826-6218 or visit www.RenoSleepWell.com.