Initial Steps in Understanding Pain

As a culture we seem to be somewhat conflicted in our views of pain. Many of us believe that pain is a part of exercise, an indication that we are working hard.  We confuse the discomfort of pushing ourselves in a workout with actual pain.  When we feel real pain in our training, many of us ignore it and push on.  We wear T-shirts with catchy slogans like “no pain no gain”, as though being in a state of pain is praiseworthy. And even while many of us almost glorify pain in the context of exercise, we mask the signs of physical pain in other areas of our lives with ibuprofen, and we hide emotional pain from ourselves in busyness and addictive behaviors, possibly viewing pain as weakness.

When we actually do take the time to investigate our pain, we often do so through our intellect rather than through our bodies. We research, Google, and read what others have to tell us about our pain rather than listen to what we are actually experiencing.  We are more inclined to trust what someone else tells us about our condition than we are to actually experience our own pain to learn what our own bodies have to say about what makes us feel better or worse.  We focus our attention outward rather than on what’s happening within us.

I am no different.  When I hurt my back recently my first reaction was to email my experts, Louise and Emily, asking them to decipher my pain for me from three states away. I wanted answers: What did they think I had done?  Pulled muscle?  Slipped disc?  Which specific muscles were involved? How should I fix it?  Louise tried to explain to me that really I would need to answer my own questions and that I would not find those answers through my intellect: “You can not think your way out of your back pain,” she told me.  Instead she suggested that I would be able to find the answers I really needed, what made it better and what made it worse, by listening to my body not my mind.  That I would be able to find the initial answers I sought through breath and feel and movement. Once I had those initial answers, I could go from there with better understanding.

This first step of understanding through our own bodily experience, rather than through intellect or through an expert opinion, is one that I was trying to by-pass, in my impatience to be better.  And as Louise and I discussed later, it is fairly typical of the way most of us function.  We often first look externally for a diagnosis, for generalized expert advice about how to deal with our specific situation.  This is often less helpful than learning how our particular bodies respond to our particular situation; as Louise says, it is like “putting duct tape over your crying child’s mouth without any conversation about what the matter is and what can be done to take care of it, both in the immediate moment and for the sake of preventing it in the future.”

It seems like many of us try to by-pass this initial step, not wanting to take the time to learn what our bodies might have to teach us.  While I’m definitely not advocating for people to walk around in constant physical pain, certainly not sudden or acute pain, without seeking treatment, what I am suggesting is that pain is neither a sign of weakness nor something that we need to fear any more than it is the hallmark of an effective training session.  It is really just our body’s way of asking us to pay attention, to turn our sights inward, to be aware.  Perhaps if we take some time to find our own answers first, to pay attention to what makes our pain more or less intense, to trust our own bodies, than we will be better able to advocate for ourselves and provide useful feedback if we do need to seek medical attention.  Perhaps if we try to understand first through feel and then through intellect we can be more active participants in our recovery.

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