Your psychological relationship to pain

October 9, 2015

Pain helps us to learn our limits and protect ourselves, but some pain is unnecessary and unhelpful. When there isn't much to do to medicate pain, there's always mindfulness to change how you interact with it and that alone can relieve some of the pain.

Your psychological relationship to pain
  • "The struggle or suffering is not so much in the things we face, but in our relationship to them. If you go waist-deep into the ocean determined to face the next wave, more than likely it will knock you on your butt. But if you ride with that wave, you have a better chance of still standing after the wave."

- Steven D. Hickman, Psy. D., clinical psychologist and director of the University of California, San Diego, Centre for Mindfulness

Dancing with pain, and other personalized methods of perceiving pain

Brain images taken of people in pain show that pain lights up areas that control sensations but also those that regulate emotions and thought processes. The sensation of pain comes from nerve impulses that travel from the painful spot to the brain, registering ache or stabbing or dull.

  • The other component of pain is distress, that is, how angry, fearful, or scared you feel about your pain, says Steven D. Hickman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of the University of California, San Diego, Centre for Mindfulness.
  • "Two people can have the very same condition and give it two different numbers on a pain scale of zero to ten. And two people can give the same number for wildly different sorts of pain. Someone can give an eight for a stubbed toe and another for cancer pain."
  • That begins to explain why your relationship to pain matters. Let's say that you have a pain you rate as an eight, but four of those points come from distress.
  • "Even if you can't do anything medical for the pain, you can do something about the distress," says Hickman.

The degree to which you come to terms with your pain can relieve a lot of suffering. "Even simple techniques, from laughter to relaxation, from meditation to distraction, can help you establish a new relationship with your pain, taking it down a notch, or several notches.

  • After his experiences in Hickman's class on mindfulness, one of Hickman's patients, a former football player who had once played through his pain, said, "I fought with my pain for years, and what I learned to do in this class was to dance with it."

You can, too.

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