Featured in

Featured in: Tiny Buddha, Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

Friday, September 2, 2016

Mindfulness - Pain

Caja de la china, Flickr 

"We are not on this earth to accumulate victories, or trophies, or experiences, 
or even to avoid failures, but to be whittled and sandpapered down 
until what's left is who we truly are." 
Ariana Huffington

Disclaimer: This blog in no way replaces medical and psychological advice or treatment. If you experience suicidal thoughts, seek professional help immediately.

Have you ever felt unbearable pain? Chances are you have, even if your life has been exempt of unusually dreadful events (e.g. torture, a war, a genocide). 

Physical pain

For one thing, some medical conditions or events, which may not be that uncommon, can put one into a state of intense pain. Examples include kidney stones, shingles, migraine/cluster headache, nerve pain, severe burns, and giving birth. 

The type (and intensity) of pain triggered by those conditions or events is hard to imagine for the neophyte, but nonetheless very real. Cluster headache, for example, has nothing in common with "just a headache" that a tall glass of water, some acetaminophen, and a walk outside would take care of: 

"It's nicknamed the suicide headache because patients have suicidal thoughts to get away from the pain. My patients have told me that it makes them want to bang their heads against a wall or take a drill to their head." (Sean Mackey, pain medicine specialist)

Psychological pain

Some mental health issues, such as the rather widespread anxiety and depression, can feel unbearable to the point of suicidal thoughts (notice a trend?). I know a chronically depressed person who told me that to her, "life will always be a struggle", and who needs antidepressants to manage getting out of bed in the morning. Another friend once wrote that every single morning, he deliberately chooses between putting a gun or a toothbrush in his mouth. 

But more commonplace events can send one down the abyss of despair just as well. The loss of a person you loved, whether they were a family member, a friend or a lover, and whether they were taken away by death or simply chose to walk out of your life, is one flagrant example. The feelings that arise from such events are almost unbearable, at least temporarily. 

The truth is, some emotions can generate just as much pain as physical injuries, and one might be willing to do just about anything to get rid of that pain. As Christina Huffington aptly put it: "Giving up drugs is easy compared to dealing with the emotions drugs protected you from." Obnoxious emotions often have a physiological component, too, and anyone who has ever experienced anxiety (or any type of intense fear), depression (or any type of profound sadness) could attest: knot in the stomach or in the throat, nausea, etc.

Here and now

What's common to those causes of unbearable pain is that they force you to be in the moment, in some cruel manifestation of imposed mindfulness. When in pain there is no past and no future. You are in the here and now with the pain, although you would much rather be anywhere else (sometimes even dead).

What to do about pain

The main problem with pain is not its existence, but our reaction to it. Here are some of the right things to do in the face of pain:

  • Obtain proper treatment (when applicable): That could be the right medication or the right therapy - just don't assume you have to endure the pain. It took me years to find proper treatment for my migraines but boy am I glad I did not relent in my search.
  • Although this may sound contradictory, acknowledge the pain: Obtaining proper treatment is not the same as numbing the pain or distracting yourself from it with a harmful habit. Simultaneous to - adequate, supervised - treatment should be a quest to understand where the pain is coming from, the factors involved. Mindfulness may help identify the triggers and some solutions so that the pain happens less, or less intensely, in the future. Meanwhile, if you feel like crying, do so (oftentimes crying qualifies as part of the treatment).
  • Breathe: When all else fails, going back to the breath is sure to help - even slightly. There's a reason women in labor are encouraged to breathe in a certain way. Conscious breathing can help release anxiety, stress, and physical pain. It's not a panacea, but it helps.
  • Take care of someone else: In between bouts of intense pain, thinking and caring about someone else's needs can be a relief - especially if they are in pain too.
  • Give it some time: This too shall pass.

Finding meaning to pain

No offense to Kelly Clarkson, what doesn't kill doesn't always make you stronger. 
Intense, debilitating pain, especially when it's recurrent, takes its toll on you (physically and mentally). 

Trying to find meaning to pain is a grand metaphysical endeavor, and in my opinion mostly a coping mechanism. If we're going to suffer that much, can we at least understand why?

Unfortunately (or fortunately), there is no rhyme or reason to pain. Life does not follow any logic in how it distributes suffering. You might make all the right choices and still end up in a lot of pain, or make mistake after mistake and be spared for the most part. How unfair! But how lifelike.

Notwithstanding Judeo-Christianity, I will never consider pain a plus in my life - pain sucks, and the least is the better. However, as a longtime migraine sufferer, I couldn't help but notice that in the absence of head pain, I feel absolutely fantastic. Light. Free. Blissful. I am not sure I would experience normality so intensely if frequent, debilitating pain was not part of my life.

Pain is also a great teacher. Experiencing intense emotional pain after falling for (and getting dumped by) the wrong person? It has taught me to not become attached to the wrong people. To listen to my instinct, always keeping my antennas out. If something feels odd or off, I don't pursue it, or at least I remain slightly detached emotionally. I protect myself.

That being said, I would rather not have to experience intense pain, and when it's there I cannot wait for it to go away. I cope by reminding myself that 

This too shall pass.

Mindfulness this Week

How do you cope with pain?

What has pain taught you?

Be part of the process: 

Submit your comments below

Become a follower of the blog/subscribe by email (top left corner of this page)


  1. Epicurus had pain near the center of his existential sensibilities. Since his teachings are still manifest throughout culture today, I often look to him on this subject (among others).

    Clearly their are exceptions to this, but most pain, physical or emotional, is short-lived. And even for the physical and emotional pain that is ongoing, it usually comes and goes, whether it's in the form of day/bad days or good/bad minutes.

    To his primary point, Epicurus suggests that we make most of our day-to-day, moment-to-moment decisions based on one thing; a fear of pain, be it emotional or physical pain. He suggests we strive to overcome this. No easy task, but it can be done.

    If one steps back and take a long enough look a this, it becomes clear that this is true. We live our lives first an foremost with a fear of pain center to our thinking.

    Of course this isn't to suggest that we don't do our best to avoid, resist, or combat pain. However, for me, when it comes to pain of any kind I take regular inventory that I know it is always going to show up, and that it is almost always going to be temporary.

    And in the words of Dylan (paraphrased) my pain reminds me that I'm really real.

    Read my blog this week for more on that...


  2. I've thought a lot about pain. Although primarily, pain is a warning, you would think that once we are aware of the cause and are warned, the pain would stop, but no such luck.

    The worst physical pains I can remember were from a kidney issue and a cracked tooth that I didn't know was cracked. I used my martial art training to get through those times. Also when I had a severe shoulder dislocation from falling while skiing and the orthopedist was putting my shoulder back on the dock. He said he could take me to the ER and give me drugs. I said (not in this language) don't worry about the pain, I won't move, just put it back in place. Which I didn't and he did.

    I'm not sure pain or experience has taught me anything. I don't expect it to be easier the next time just because it won't be the first time. It will just give me another story to tell.

    1. I hear that tooth pain can be excruciating!

      Child labor is another case where pain does not serve a warning purpose. It might help mama bond with the child, I don't know!!!