How to Learn from Pain

What do you do when you are going about your day and that nagging ache or pain you have presents itself? Do you ignore it and hope it will disappear? Do you do some kind of stretch or exercise, or some other random adjustment? Do you stop what you are doing, even though you don’t really want to? Take a pill? Other? The approaches people take vary depending on the person or situation, but in most cases people do something, and usually that something is aimed at trying to get rid of the pain.

At first glance this appears to make sense. You have pain, and you would prefer to not have pain, so you do whatever you think might get rid of it at that moment. But if we dig a little deeper at how this process usually unfolds, we can find some reasons why this response might not be the best way to solve your problem for good and to continue your life pain-free.

The main problem with this approach is that, well…it doesn’t work! An hour later, or the next day, or a week later the same thing happens, and you go through a similar process of doing something to try and get rid of that nagging symptom. And this goes on, and on, and on, sometimes for months, years, or decades without questioning or changing the approach you are taking to deal with it. It can become a vicious cycle of symptom – momentary relief – symptom inevitably returns.

But what if these experiences of pain, tension, and strain are actually here to help you? What if they are some of the best information you have available to understand the nature of your problem? What if pain is a guiding messenger, here to alert you that yes, something needs your attention, but perhaps not in the way you usually attend to yourself?

Most people who suffer from muscle and joint pain are not in pain 100% of the time. There are times when it is there, and times when it is not, times when it is worse, and times when it is not as bad. This can be incredibly valuable information that often isn’t considered or analyzed. Why does it hurt today but didn’t yesterday, or why does it hurt when you do activity x but not activity y? Why does it hurt right now, and not five minutes ago? By responding to these moments differently, you may be able to learn something about why it hurts when it does, and how you can prevent it from recurring. Instead of doing something right away to try and get rid of the pain, you could start to investigate yourself and ask what might you be doing that is causing it. What could this pain be a message of? What have you been up to the past while that has led you to your current state?

Are you standing with most of your weight on one leg? Are you holding your breathe as you bend or lift something? Are you gripping the steering wheel with way more force than needed? Are you wearing a certain article of clothing that might be restricting your movement? Have you pulled your head forward towards a computer screen, displacing it off the support of your torso? Were you worrying about whether or not your back is going to hurt soon, and subtly shifting your attention inward to look for the pain?

Perhaps it could be something a little less physical and a bit more on the mental side of things. Do you notice it more when you are approaching a deadline at work, and you are rushing to get things done? Did it happen after thinking and worrying how you are going to pay the mortgage? Are there certain people who you are around when you notice it more? Were you narrowing your attention to your work at the computer, losing touch with your body, the room you are in, and how you are sitting? These are just a few examples, and you could create your own questions and possible connections that relate to some of the activities and challenges of your life.

Who knows what you may find if you start to ask questions like this about what you are up to during your day. Obviously, the reasons for people’s aches and pains can be many, and are not necessarily connected to one’s way of operating in the world, or to something you are doing. But just by asking some simple questions about what you are experiencing and why you may be experiencing it at certain times and not others, you create an opportunity to break the cycle of pain and short-term relief . It could help you make a new connection and to understand what your aches and pains might be trying to tell you, instead of instantly assuming they are wrong and trying to sweep them under the rug.

So the next time you notice that backache, neck pain, tense shoulders, or whatever your unique issue is, I invite you to try out this different approach. By meeting these moments differently and investigating them with curiosity, you could gain some insight into the nature of your problem. Who knows, perhaps you can learn how to free yourself from pain for more than an hour at a time.

Make sense? Intrigued? Have questions or objections? Come try a lesson sometime and explore these ideas (and much more!) further.