There is a saying, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Pain is not only inevitable it is necessary. People who can’t feel pain don’t live long lives. If something is harming our body, pain tells us about that and provides motivation to do something about it. It is like the smoke alarm that tells you that your house is on fire. It is loud and annoying and motivates you to get up and do something about it. Sometimes the smoke alarm may go off when you are just making breakfast. You know what to do then. You deal with the source of the smoke, open a window and maybe move the smoke detector out of the room. With pain that alarms without apparent good cause, we may not know what to do.
Pain is supposed to be aversive. We are supposed to want it to stop. It would be useless to us if it were desirable. Since it is aversive, we may come to view it as an enemy---something that is attacking us. This leads to fear, that activates the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. Misfiring of the sympathetic nervous system is a characteristic of some chronic pain. If we fear the pain won’t go away, we may feel a mix of emotions about it, including sadness, anger, frustration, shame, and helplessness. If it persists, the pain may draw us down into depression. In a depressed state we are deficient in the brain chemicals like Seratonin and Dopamine that we need to feel good, and their lack makes us more vulnerable to pain.
Pain is a complex process involving nerves, the brain, the immune system, and chemical processes in the body. It is influenced by genetics, personal experience, cultural conditioning, personal belief, and the responses of other people. Many believe it is also connected to more subtle forces of what we might call our energy body. Clearly, pain is a body/mind phenomenon.
Medical doctors may treat it with medications, such as analgesics, muscle relaxers, and anti-inflammatories. They may use surgery, nerve blocks, or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) , among other strategies.
Alternative approaches to pain include Chiropractic, Acupuncture, Shiatsu, Massage, various forms of bodywork,, Reiki, and Yoga .
Mental approaches that can be helpful include meditation, autogenics and other forms of relaxation, guided imagery , creative visualization, biofeedback, affirmations, counseling, support groups, and hypnosis.
Each approach has its value and it’s limits. You can do lots of mental work that won’t be effective if you have a physical problem that goes untreated. At the same time, doctors may fix your physical problem, but the pain may not go away if mental conditions maintain it. If you have a physical problem, consult your doctor. If you want to work on mental issues related to pain, here are some thoughts that may be worth contemplating.
People respond differently to pain. You may have been taught that any pain is dangerous or intolerable. Would it help you to change your belief?
If the pain is exacerbated by thoughts, such as “This is killing me” “I can’t take this” “This is too much for me” or “This pain just won’t go away” you can consciously change the thought to affirm a reality you would prefer. Try switching to affirmations such as:
“I am stronger than any pain. I let this sensation flow through me. I let it go.”
Some people have developed an ability to ignore or disassociate from pain. Can you loosen your identification with the experience of pain?
The placebo effect is a problem for researchers, because a significant percentage of people get better even if they are given a fake pill. It isn’t a problem for you if you can make the same process work for you. Suggest to yourself that you are getting better. Calmly affirm the efficacy of whatever treatment you are using. Placebo is just another word for the healer within.
If the pain goes away some of the time, you know that it can go away. If it is less some of the time you know it can be less. Let go of any belief that your pain is your permanent oppressor. Invite it to ebb to its lowest point. Feed yourself thoughts of hope for improvement.
If the pain is caused by inflammation or some other immune system problem you can have hope, because the immune system is intelligent, and it is possible to influence it through thought, including imagery and verbal thought. We have a lot to learn about this. The study of it is called psychoneuroimmunology .
If the pain is caused or maintained by muscle tension, you can influence the muscles to relax. Relaxation is a skill to be learned and practiced. If you don’t know how, that doesn’t mean you can’t relax. It means you haven’t attained the skill yet.
If the pain is caused or maintained by fear, challenge the beliefs behind the fear and learn to activate the relaxation response that is the parasympathetic nervous system’s all clear response when danger is gone. Slower, deeper breathing is the most direct way to activate the relaxation response.
© 2002 Tom Barrett