This week I have been toying with random thoughts about pain. I searched for the origin of the quote, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Did it come from sports? Business? Parenting? I learned it is often used to motivate military troops or reluctant exercisers facing the initial discomfort of challenging workouts. I read from others in pain how such a mantra does not help in managing pain. What does?
An occupational therapist who has worked with me to rehab my broken wrist suggested a more useful approach. When our bodies guard against pain, i.e. following an accident or injury, we need to re-educate our nervous system to tolerate pain once again. In other words, increasing our pain threshold decreases pain sensitivity. By putting up with some discomfort now, we will have less overall pain in the future. I could get behind that one.
Managing Pain – Physical
I fell back on 25 years of experience as a personal trainer to translate her comment into useful advice. Take hiking, for example. If you have never hiked before, and you go out to the mountains for an eight-mile trip with too much in your pack, you will likely experience pain from Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) over the next few days. You might even strain an underprepared muscle that could leave you out for the season.
But if you “sneak up” on your hiking mileage and do a little more each time, the pain won’t be as bad and will eventually disappear as you increase your tolerance. Could the same concept hold true with rehabilitation? Was I hurting myself in the long run by protecting myself from all pain?
With newfound understanding, I endured her poking and prodding at my wrist. Sessions with my myofascial release practitioner were excruciating at first, and as he got deeper into the tissue it seemed like the pain was getting worse rather than better. Finally, in a session this week, he said, “We’ve never gotten this deep because your wrist has been so sensitive.” Aha! I WAS getting more tolerant of pain. Shock training was similar; I had to work through initial discomfort for it to be better the next time. Who knew?
Managing Pain – Emotional
Can we use the same idea of progressive overload to train ourselves emotionally? Can we “get accustomed” to grief, or at least learn new coping tools, so the next time we lose something or someone it won’t feel as devastating? I tested that theory recently.
In an earlier post (November 2021) I mentioned volunteering at Woodland Park Zoo for the past eight years. For reasons I won’t discuss, I decided this week to discontinue volunteering, something I have been considering over the past six months. I thought leaving would be more difficult than it was. It turns out pondering for six months was way more painful than actually leaving which took all of two minutes in an e-mail. I felt initial sadness and then profound relief. This leads me to another great quote a client brought up recently.
Be the Buffalo
On a recent hike on Big Tree Ridge, a hiking partner told me to, “Be the buffalo.” I asked her to explain. She said that instead of racing away from storms, buffalo charge into them in order to experience less overall discomfort. Genius! Procrastinators often make their pain worse by dwelling — for hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years — on the negative possibilities instead of facing the problem head-on.
Rather than avoiding the pain of physical therapy, once I started embracing it and inviting it into my own training sessions, I made faster gains. The pain diminished. And I sped toward healing.
Never Lose Hope
Matt Haig, the author of one of my favorite contemporary novels, the Midnight Library, writes in The Comfort Book: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.” Buddhism teaches that life is all about suffering. Everyone suffers. We all experience pain. Yet some deal with it far easier than others. They have the resilience I am after.
Later in the same book, he repeats a line: “Nothing is stronger than a small hope that never gives up.” Print it. Frame it. Post it everywhere you feel discouraged and anytime you are in pain. That pain will pass.
To close this week, I offer you a symbol of your own small hope, if you wish: a black bear cub from Yellowstone, cute and cuddly when young but a force to be reckoned with as an adult. May you face today whatever pains you, so that your hope grows into an unstoppable force tomorrow.