The first time you touched a hot stove, or got a splinter, you learned what pain is. Acute pain is a message to your body: pull your hand away from the heat or you’ll get burned!
Once the burn is healed, or the splinter pulled out, the pain goes away. It’s done its job and is no longer needed. However, the story gets more complicated when we’re talking about chronic pain.
Did you know that pain can’t be seen on an x-ray, CT scan or MRI? The only thing these images tell us is that there’s something abnormal in the structure of our bodies. Some people have severe, chronic pain for years, have done every test in the book, and no one can find anything wrong. Others learn of a bulging disc by accident – they’re in for something totally unrelated and it’s seen on an x-ray. The patient has no pain.
That’s not to say that these images aren’t helpful. There are plenty of instances where someone has pain, is diagnosed with a torn ACL (or whatever), gets surgery, and fixes the problem. But in many cases, the picture is more complicated than that.
This type of chronic pain is an imbalance in the nervous system. It’s our body’s way of alerting us to danger. However, the danger is long gone, and our conscious mind may not have even known about it in the first place. So, where did the danger come from, and how can we get it to go away?
Usually, when experiencing pain in our bodies, the first thing we do is react. Tense up. Push the pain away, pretend its not there. But this only makes it worse. Tension increases and pain intensifies. It’s only by relaxing and taking deep breaths that we are able to relieve the intensity. This technique is quite well known in medical circles – in fact, we teach women to do it while giving birth to ease the process and relieve a bit of the inevitable pain associated with childbirth.
With labor, we know exactly why the pain is there – to clue us in that there’s a baby on the way and we need to be present for it. But if it’s migraines or sciatica we’re talking about, the reason might not be so clear. The only way to figure it out is to ask.
The next time your pain makes itself known, however that may be, start by relaxing and breathing deeply for a few minutes. This should take it down a notch. Then enter into the pain, don’t resist it. Sometimes that’s all it needs: just to be acknowledged. However, if you’re still experiencing pain, or if it keeps coming back over and over again, try a technique called Focusing.
Sidle up next to your pain, and try to describe the sensation. Is it dull, achy, throbbing, sharp, nervy? Once you think you have the answer, ask the pain if that’s a correct description. If so, move on. If not, ask again until you find something that works. The “yes” or “no” isn’t literal, it’s more of a felt sense. You may feel the area of pain relax a bit, or maybe your belly, chest or throat releases. It’s also possible that the pain intensifies for a minute – it’s nervous about telling you it’s true purpose.
The next step is to see if there’s an emotion involved in the pain. Sometimes it’s right there on the surface – other times you may have to try a few on for size and ask the pain if it fits. “Does this throbbing feel angry?”, “Is this ache afraid of something?” It helps to imagine that you’re sitting beside the pain, slightly separate from the sensations, gently focused and listening.
Once you pin down the emotion, a story might emerge. Or maybe not. Be patient, and know that you may not get the whole picture on the first try. If the pain comes back, you’ll know it has something more to say, and each time it will reveal a little more to you until it finally dissipates.
Focusing requires you to momentarily step away from your logical, thinking brain, and enter into your intuitive mind. This can be difficult for many of us in this culture, where the logical brain is valued, and intuition is considered a bit “woo-woo”. But I encourage you to experiment. Temporarily suspend your disbelief and see what happens. I’m willing to bet that you’ll be delightfully surprised.