Solving the Unsolveable: 4 Steps in a Path to Healing & Preventing Chronic Pain
Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you – all of the expectations, all of the beliefs – and becoming who you are. – Rachel Naomi Remen
Over the last 30 years I have gradually gotten myself into the business of chronic pain. I developed this niche not by claiming it but, rather, through following my interests and passion for all teachings and related to the mind-body connection. I first studied Psychology, and then Yoga, followed by Ayurveda, Meditation, Mindfulness and Buddhism. Every path led to the same place with different words. While I was developing my own model of approaching my patient’s complaints from what we used to refer to collectively as a “holistic” or “alternative” point of view, the scientific theory of pain was evolving as well. Currently, there is substantial evidence to prove that pain is not simply a physical or neurological reaction to a stimulus, but a process involving an individual’s culture, their environment, their past and present experience and their perception along with the original stimulus.
All pain, acute or chronic, is real but not all pain is true in a mathematical sense (a + b ≠ c). In recognizing this, we can let go of the need to find a solution to the problem. In fact, these efforts to determine the how and why and whose to blame often create a self-perpetuating pain cycle and impede the natural processes of healing. Below I offer you 4 steps to help you move through acute pain directly (without initiating the cycle) or to free you from the grip of the chronic pain cycle. I believe these steps to be effective in most to all cases however the amount of time to progress through the steps is highly variable. In the case of acute pain, you may move through these steps in a matter of hours; in cases of chronic pain, it may take weeks, months or years.
Release Ownership: stop referring to the discomfort you feel as “my pain” or, especially “my painful…injured…weak…bad…etc. body part”. This is the most important first step to releasing the assigning of blame and responsibility for a solution. In the truest sense, claiming pain as your own will ensure that the burden is yours to carry. Attaching a negative adjective to body part will give your pain a home. In truth, pain is dynamic and changing and healing is systemic.
See it for what it is: The word pain is so loaded. What is “pain” and how is it perceived in the body? “Pain” is the mental recognition of a negative sensation. What would happen if you remove this word from your vocabulary? Describe your sensation in every way you can, other than the word “pain”. Give it a size, a shape, a pulse, a movement, a temperature, a weight, a texture, a taste, a smell, etc. Next, describe another place of your choice in the body (maybe the opposite side, left/right, front/back). Finally, check in with your the original place once again and note any changes in the sensation. Even if the discomfort has intensified, you will recognize that your discomfort is not static or intractable. This practice can take the form of a Body Scan or Body Sensing Meditation if you like.
Accept It / Neutralize It. This is usually the most difficult step and it may take time. You don’t have to be happy about the presence of discomfort and irritability in your body, but you don’t have to run away from it either. As you begin to describe the pain for what it is, you will begin to notice the hold it has on you and your life. It may be the lack of control, the frustration of not knowing what is happening to your body, the inability to continue the activities which make you fuel your passion for life, the feeling of being “less than” or the guilt of not being able to fulfill your responsibilities. On the other hand, you may recognize that you are somewhat attached to this presence. It brings you love, nurturing and attention, it gets you out of doing things you don’t enjoy or that take up your time. With persistent pain, there is often the relative comfort of living with pain compared to the fear of starting over without it. When you begin to ask yourself, what can I accept and “what am I afraid to feel?”, you give yourself permission to feel the sensation or the emotion (for more on this, see Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach). In feeling the sensation or the emotion directly without negative connotations, resistance, or aversion, you free this connection in the cycle of pain.
Take Positive Action with Compassion: When you make it to this last step, you have so many options to move forward. You are no longer trying to solve the problem, you are simply moving forward regardless of the condition in whatever way you feel safe and ready with a gentleness towards yourself and your body. In the case of acute pain, you have the detachment to treat the condition directly and appropriately for what it is – you have described the sensations and you know which you will tolerate and which you will not. In cases of persistent pain, the options include, but are not limited to: meditation, yoga, physical therapy, psychotherapy, nutritional support, medication. Describe a “positive” version of yourself, one that you can remember with all your senses, (“I am…”), and move slowly and steadily towards it with each breath and each decision.
Please feel free to comment on your experience with pain or your path to recovery, to inquire for more resources or guidance, or to find out how to book a session with Melissa at Discover Yoga & Physical Therapy.