Emotional Intelligence

What I Have Learned from Pain

John Owens

What I Have Learned from Pain

Last month I wrote about what I have learned from fear. Now I’d like to share some things I’ve learned from pain. Though pain is a sensation and not an emotion, we will almost always have an accompanying emotion with pain, like anger, sadness, hopelessness, or fear. There are also many, many types of pain that we experience, not just physically, but emotionally as well. In this writing, I plan to dip into a facet or two of physical and emotional pain, the accompanying array of emotions that surround that sensation, and share with you some of what I’ve learned from my experiences.

We are neurologically wired to avoid pain. And for good reason: mostly pain is our body’s signal that it is being injured, and continuance of what is hurting will cause further injury, and threatens our well-being or survival. Pain is also unavoidable: it is a part of life, and one of the first lessons we all learn is to avoid what causes us pain. But we also learn that not all pain is bad or to be avoided. While we may temporarily avoid feeling the worst of pain by numbing, such as in the dentist’s office or with some medical procedures, such things can enhance our health and our lives, even if we feel some pain afterward. It hurts to pull out the sliver in our finger, or put the antiseptic on a wound, but the short-term pain is worth it for the longer-term benefit.

Okay, all this you know. So, here’s something else: often ‘leaning’ or ‘dipping’ into pain can be healing. I became acutely aware of this in my process of healing for shoulder pain beginning in July a year ago. At the time I was in India for several months, and one day woke up from severe pain in my shoulder radiating down to my elbow. I bore with this for several weeks thinking it would go away, yet often waking up at night from pain. I could not remember doing anything to injure my shoulder, yet I could not tuck in my shirt or reach behind my back or lift my arm overhead. So, first I saw a student of physical therapy, practiced her regimen, but to no avail. I then visited the foremost physiologist in Pune, who specialized in treating shoulders. I got X-rays and ultrasound imaging done. These showed some inflammation, but no tear or rupture. Again, I practiced his new regimen of therapy to strengthen and mobilize my shoulder. I improved 15% or so and plateaued. During this plateau period of 3 or 4 months, I felt plenty of pain doing some of the exercises, especially the stretches. I would breathe through them, and try to relax into the sensation of pain. Over time, I finally developed a sense of just how much pain and stretch was right for me, and learned to listen closely to my body’s response in the moment. For me, that meant stretching for maybe 10 seconds, release, and then gradually repeat, building increasing amounts of time on the stretch. Finally, I made real progress, and today I can say I am better than 95% of the way to full recovery of mobility, and much stronger than I was before this incident.

Despite the severe pain I felt, I never sensed that there was something wrong or injured. I went through a cycle of emotions around this: fear, frustration and anger and impatience, determination and commitment, sadness and hopelessness. Each feeling I acknowledged for its bit of truth, and then returned to my commitment and determination to practice my faith that the exercises would eventually lead to my recovery. Along the way, I read an article about some teenagers that suddenly develop debilitating pain with movement. The pain is caused not by injury, but from the nervous system over-reacting to stimulus. These people were treated through a course of doing activities in a pool, the same motions that cause them pain, in order to retrain the nerves not to be ‘trigger happy’. In six months or more, they can recover and reclaim their lives as before. I believe this is similar or the same as what happened to me, and that I have had to endure daily sessions of pain—in a very measured way—in order to retrain my pain-sending nerves to stand down. I have a few more nerves to retrain, but I’m almost there!

I have long believed that our physical body and our emotions are closely linked, if not inseparable. We know now that there exists a chemical basis for our emotions: serotonin, cortisol, dopamine, endorphins, noradrenaline, acetylcholine, etc. whose presence or absence are directly associated with certain emotions. Not only do we experience a chemical association with emotion in our brain, but we also feel sensations in our body: a warming and expansiveness in our chest when experiencing love, or heat in our body when feeling anger; chills and sweats with fear, and, of course, tears with grief, and also with loving joy as well. When I hear or think about myself or others being injured, I experience an electric shock up and down my spine (very unpleasant). What physical sensations do you feel with strong emotional responses to stimuli?

It’s not too far a stretch, I think, to parallel our own emotional healing of wounds and pains to how we heal physically. Just as physical wounds are not healed completely by avoiding all pain: think of scar tissue that builds up and limits our mobility, so, too, it is with emotional wounds. By avoiding leaning into and feeling the pain we miss the healing and recovery process that restores our ability to fully experience life. A personal story comes to mind around this for me about when my father died. He and I had been somewhat estranged in my early adult years, and we were finding a solid footing for a close relationship when his diminishments, and then his strokes and finally death, cut short our growing closeness. His death hit me expecially hard, and I spent the better part of a year grieving the loss. Emotionally, at first, I dipped into the feelings of loss and grief. And, I suppose that realizing I survived experiencing the discomfort of that emotion over time I was able to grieve fully, tearfully, feeling the rending sensations in my heart without trying to protect myself from the pain in my heart. I had no idea how long this would go on, if not forever, but eventually I spent every bit of my grief and loss, and a clarity came to me that I continue to hold. I won’t avoid relationship intimacy because it may end in painful loss. I feel ready to experience the joy of sharing, as well as the sadness of letting go, when that time arrives. I can survive and even thrive emotionally because I have been through it all.

So, summary points to consider, and something to try:

  • The experience of pain can be a calling forth, to meet a challenge to recover our abilities.
  • Physical and emotional pain have similar modalities for healing.
  • Avoiding pain limits our ability to experience the highs and lows of life to our fullest.
  • Healing pain can be managed by easing into it, and going as far as our body tells us it is safe to do so.
  • What sensation of pain have you been protecting and avoiding? What is possible for you from leaning into that sensation and pushing back on it gently and with persistence?

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