Before we delve into the intricacies of pain, please note that we covered this Village Principle in depth in previous chapters.
Since infancy we learn that our world can hurt us. We learn that we can skin knees, bump heads, and even feel painful tears when we are left out or angry. We learn that some of our hurts heal while others linger. Sometimes we even experience pain so profoundly that it alters the course of our lives. Chances are you know someone whose pain led them to drastic choices, like leaving a job, a marriage, or even their religion. You probably know even more people who have pursued risky surgeries or developed dependencies to medications aimed at reducing pain. Yet, despite its ubiquity, few understand what pain actually is.
Take a moment and try to define it. Is it a feeling? Is it a signal? Is it physical? Emotional? Is it good? Bad? Helpful or harmful?
It is remarkably hard to put in a box. It's complex. It's often many things at once. While understanding WHAT pain is can be elusive, understanding HOW pain works is tremendously helpful. In fact, it can decrease the level of pain you feel.
First and most importantly, you need to understand that pain is about danger and not damage.
You see, our bodies are hard-wired to protect themselves from damage BEFORE it happens. Imagine a car alarm that only went off after the car was stolen and long gone. That would be useless! To be effective, a good alarm must go off at the first hint of danger.
Think of security at LAX. If somebody sees a cloud of smoke, security is not going to wait to uncover the source of it before they take measures to ensure travelers’ safety. Whether the smoke is coming from an actual fire or from a toaster in the employee lounge, all or part of the airport is going to get shut down. Our body’s alarm system is no different. Sometimes the alarm system can be a little too… alarming!
You might be thinking, “OK, but what about when I know there is actual damage — when I can see that I’ve broken a bone or cut my skin?” Great question!
Nobody likes to go to the doctor and get a needle stick. However, for some people, that little pin is a minor nuisance. For others, it is absolutely excruciating. It’s not because people have different nerves. It’s because people have different mindsMINDS.
If the pain we feel when we get a needle stick was a communication of damage, it would be pretty mild for everyone. However, because it is a communication of danger, your personality, past experiences, and prior knowledge all affect what you feel. Regardless of the actual damage in your body, you will only feel pain if your brain perceives a threat. You can have pain when nothing is “wrong,” like the guy with terrible arthritis on his MRI but no history of back pain.
Since feeling pain is all about sensing danger, solving pain is all about restoring safety. How do we restore a sense of safety? Let’s start with personality. Are you a high-stress or low-stress person? Type A or type B? Do you get excited by risky situations or do you prefer safety and stability? Our unique personalities, beliefs, and worldviews influence what we feel. Understanding the types of situations that make you feel safety or danger can help you identify where your pain comes from.
How about your past experiences? Sometimes our past experiences can sensitize us, and sometimes they can desensitize us. A small fender bender might be much more traumatic to someone who had recently been in a big car crash. That person would be sensitized by the experience. Let’s say that the person in the fender bender was a professional stuntman. A little fender bender might not even elevate his heart rate! The stuntman had been in so many similar experiences that his brain was bored and desensitized to it. Drawing from a sense of safety in our past can translate even in new situations. If you know you have encountered danger in another area of your life and prevailed, remember that victory.
Nutrition and lifestyle choices also play a massive role in whether we are in a state of danger or safety. Poor food choices, poor sleep, strained interpersonal relationships, and job overwork can all contribute to a danger state. Conversely, take out the garbage and give your body an environment full of nutritious foods, rest, and healthy relationships, and it is only a matter of time before you feel like a different person. Why? If the body knows its healing system is preoccupied with other stressors, it knows it doesn’t have resources available to deal with new problems. Thus, even tiny new problems are viewed by the body as big threats. Consider getting a $50 parking ticket if you had a $1,000,000 savings account versus if you were living paycheck to paycheck. The former is barely a slap on the wrist while the latter could be groceries for a week.
Knowledge is power. Simply knowing and understanding a phrase like, “Pain communicates DANGER; it does NOT communicate DAMAGE,” can change how pain feels. Inside your brain, you have a medicine cabinet full of drugs more powerful than any pharmaceutical — without any side effects. Our brain can produce powerful opioids, pain-relieving chemicals, and lots of other feel-good stuff. The best way to access it is with knowledge of how pain works. So, finish reading this, and read it again. If you want to feel better, you’re better off learning how to get the real stuff straight from the source — you!
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