Episode 91: Your Relationship with Pain

Episode Summary

Pain is a part of earth life. But when we forget this and we think our pain (either physical or emotional) is a problem, our brain pays more attention to it and this increases both the perception of our pain and the actual amount of our pain.

It turns out that the way we think about our pain is way more important than what we do about our pain. In this episode, I talk about the experience of both physical and emotional pain, how our thinking affects our relationship with pain, and how the way we interpret our pain can impact how much pain we have. Pain is part of being human, but you have way more control over the way you experience that pain than you may have thought.  

Episode Tools and Questions

In this episode, I’m sharing my recent experiences with pain. We all experience pain at some point in our lives, but our human brains often have a hard time navigating those sensations. We’re not really taught how to direct our attention towards pain in a way that’s beneficial to us. So that we can experience life the way we want, today I’m covering:

  • two types of pain we typically encounter
  • the number one thought that makes our pain worse
  • three steps to improving our relationship between attention and pain.

Physical pain
The first type of pain we commonly experience is physical pain: pain sensations that start in the body and move up to inform the brain. 

Over the holidays, all my joints became inflamed and created lots of pain for me. In the moment, it seemed like there was no logical reason for this pain. It gradually got worse, and finally I went to urgent care.

I was diagnosed with Valley Fever, which is caused by breathing in a fungus that’s in the dirt here in the desert. I underwent testing and received antibiotics to prevent pneumonia -- a common secondary infection to Valley Fever. 

Remarkably, when I woke up on Sunday, my elbows were better, my ankles were better, and the only thing really bothering me was my knees.

Here’s why that’s so interesting: technically I hadn’t been treated for Valley Fever yet. I was still in the diagnosis stage. But just my brain knowing that there was a reason my joints were hurting, and I wasn’t going to die, was enough to change the attention I was putting on it.

The attention we give to things isn’t neutral.  Attention changes things.

When we have physical pain, it’s the body’s way of telling the brain, pay attention here.  There is something wrong. And that’s what my brain had done. It had gone to work putting its attention on the things that hurt. The attention amplified the pain, made me more aware of it, and caused it to be a little bit louder and stronger.

How you think about your pain makes a difference. Once my brain realized there was a reason for my pain and it wasn’t life-threatening, it could pay less attention to it.

Emotional pain
The second type of human pain is emotional pain: emotions that start in the brain with a thought and move to the body to be felt.

Pain is happening in our lives, and our brain has to interpret what that means. If you make it mean that nothing has gone wrong and you are supposed to feel pain, it will change your experience of it. The way you categorize or think about your pain will give you a different relationship to your pain.

None of this is to say these experiences are not painful. But there’s a huge difference between resisting pain and thinking it shouldn’t be there versus understanding its purpose and its rightness in your life. Your story about your pain, and your resistance to it, can increase both your physical and emotional pain.

When we think we should not be sad, worried, overwhelmed, confused, anxious, ashamed, angry, or whatever negative emotion we feel…our brain makes it a big problem.  

“It shouldn’t be this way” is the number one thought increasing our pain and making our experience with pain harder. Whether I’m experiencing anxiety in my business or pain in my knees, “it shouldn't be this way” only puts my brain in the position that pain is dangerous, making me more aware of and increasing my pain.

The very first thing I offer my clients and what I want to offer you is the thought that you don't have to feel better. There is nothing wrong with feeling bad.  There is nothing wrong with negative emotion or having any of these experiences. This is what it means to be human. And we can just feel bad. When we know we don't need to change it, that there's a good reason for it, then our attention on it fades and our pain recedes.

How to improve your attention to pain

Feel bad - and stop telling yourself you shouldn’t. This shift can recategorize any type of pain, but it especially helps your brain perceive your negative emotions as harmless. We see pain in the gym as part of the process. What if we saw negative emotion (anxiety, overwhelm, grief) as part of the process?

When we feel bad, having thoughts that something’s gone wrong only adds to our pain. These thoughts put the brain's attention on how big the problem is and increase our pain levels.

Think about how acceptance changes any kind of pain:

  • Birth
  • Depression
  • Loneliness 
  • Loss or grief

How much pain do we add when we tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel grief or we’re doing it wrong somehow? The more you can open to your experience, the better you will feel.

Notice how you pay attention to pain. How do you talk about it? If you talk about your negative emotion like you’re broken, your brain is going to be on high alert for danger.

Attention isn’t neutral. And when you tell your brain that pain isn’t a problem, it can stop paying attention to it and that will change your relationship with pain. Pain isn’t just in your head, but your experience of it is highly impacted by the way you think about your pain…and that, my friends, is 100% awesome.  

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