Pain is a significant and often unavoidable part of life. Sometimes it is acute, sharp and localized, and other times, it can be chronic and seemingly everywhere. Sometimes pain is physical, and sometimes it is psychological or emotional. It can range to barely noticeable, to overwhelming and all-consuming. It can be passing, or permanent.
Pain sucks, but it can help us avoid things or situations that can cause harm or death. It focuses our attention like nothing else. It's immediate, poignant and involuntary. This unpleasant thing has to be dealt with... now! Pain that persists can be demoralizing and lead to despair, if not managed.
The Two Sides of Pain
Coping with pain begins with understanding the two sides of the painful experience:
- The primary sensation itself—the prick of the sharp thing, the cold, the burn, the tear, the blunt force, the pit in the stomach, the headache, the dull, sharp or shooting sensation, or the shame and embarrassment.
- What the pain means—the loss of freedom, the loss of love, the loss of a job, the loss of mobility, the fear of death.
I want to focus on the second aspect of pain because after the pain has occurred, there are effective strategies for altering the significance of the pain, reducing suffering, and deriving more joy from life in spite of the pain.
Pain is a Teacher
Of course, we want to avoid it whenever possible, diminish it when we can’t avoid it, or continue to live in spite of pain when we’ve diminished it all we can. Easier said than done.
Whether stubbing a toe or losing a loved one to alcoholism, pain is an important teacher that must be dealt with. We must give that teacher a voice, and we must pay a listening ear to hear and understand what it is saying. We must understand the cause of pain to deal with the cause appropriately. People who learn from pain really do heal and become stronger in some ways. Some even learn to profit from pain. People who don’t learn from pain risk sinking into despair and numbing substances.
Time heals wounds, but only when wounds have been properly dressed. Clean and disinfect the wound, stitch it up, pack it well and change the dressing, and your body will do the rest. We must also process emotional or psychological pain, or it too will fester and reappear in other forms later if we don’t.
Knowing when it will end (such as when exercising) makes temporary discomfort much easier to bear. Distractions can also help mitigate pain.
Chronic pain is something else entirely. You don’t know when or if it will ever stop.