Integrating Pain

What, really, is pain?
Of course, we have all sorts of labels for pain, don’t we? For example, we may differentiate between “physical” pain and “emotional” pain, or “acute” pain and “chronic” pain. We may classify pain and grade pain and use all sorts of words for it. There are so many different definitions of pain, but instinctively, below all the words, we all just know it, and all too well.

You may not realize this, or perhaps you do, but when we remember, or think of, or feel, or experience pain, we’re also accessing deep primal stuff in our minds. Because pain, like happiness and joy, has always been part of who we are. Do you know anyone who has never ever had pain? It’s hooked into our experience, our memories, our representations of the world around us, it’s part of our being.

And when we go deep, like we do when in pain, sometimes without even knowing it, we run programmed reactions to this universal experience. Some reactions are useful, others not. How we react to the inevitable pain changes our experience of pain. And when our experience of something changes, in what way has that something itself changed? What if we could try to reprogram our reactions, how would the pain change for us? Yes, we can.

I’ve had the fortune of studying different aspects of the experience we call pain, albeit through my medical training on the physical dimensions, or the psychological and spiritual aspects through my coaching and therapeutic training. And there are some pearls of wisdom that have been handed down to me, and which I gladly share:

  1. Pain has a purpose
    Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) points out that all people and all things have a higher intent – including pain. In other words, everything we do, all our actions, consciously or unconsciously, are done for some reason. Sometimes the action is misguided and may even have the opposite effect of that higher intent, but somewhere, if you strip it all down and reveal what’s inside, you discover the higher intent. And when you find a better way to satisfy the higher intent, you’ve just become a more resourceful and integrated individual, haven’t you?
    Maybe that chronic headache is trying to tell you something, that backache that is sucking up all those pain pills but not getting better may have a message for you, or that recurrent stomach pain is more than just a physical symptom.
    When we tune in to our bodies, pain is re-framed, and becomes a tool for growth. And you’ve experienced this, haven’t you, that when you complain and then feel listened to, you feel better, and maybe, probably, the same applies to our pain.
  2. Pain is not a weapon of mass destruction
    Why do we tend to use war words when we describe pain? “This suffering is intense, but I’m fighting it all the way”; “I won’t surrender to this pain”; “I’m losing the battle and the pain is defeating me”. Can you think of more fighting words for pain?
    But have you heard the saying “resistance is persistence”?
    Of course, we need to seek meaning and of course we need to find strength in the face of our suffering, but is inner conflict the best way to do that? Whether we like it or not, that pain is part of us, not outside of us.
    Here’s a radical thought. Instead of trying to make war with the real part of ourselves that is the pain, and by setting out to integrate that part with the rest of our parts, I wonder how our experience of that pain will change? And if our experience of pain changes, so does the pain. Does that make sense to you too?
  3. Drugs are not the whole answer
    We’ve become a society of pill poppers. We have a blue pill for this, and a red capsule for that. Do you know how many of our symptoms are side effects of treatment?
    I’m a man of science and a researcher myself, and I’m proud of our technology, but I often feel that we’ve lost the bigger picture. Medication, and any other medical procedure, has its place, for sure, but are we reaching for it only because it’s a seemingly quick and easy fix? I don’t know, and each situation is different, but I do know that managing all of our pain means managing all of ourselves, and medication is only part of the solution.

Let’s not underestimate physical or psychological pain. It’s hard. Sometimes it sucks to be human. Pain is one of the experiences common to all people, everywhere, over all time. Some might say it’s the price we pay for all the positive experiences in life. Personally, I think all experiences are valuable and worthy of respect.

There are effective coaching techniques that work and work well for all sorts of pain.
They all work on this principle: maybe, instead of fighting our pain, we should engage with it, recognize it, contextualize it. And by doing so, who knows how much the pain is changing, and how far that change can go?

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