On Coping with Pain

Many people in this world live in a great deal of pain.  In our own country, we have recognized that reliance of individuals on prescription pain medications is at an epidemic level.  It is staggering that Americans consume almost 90% of the world’s supply of narcotic pain medications. 

When one is on pain medications, the body’s pain receptors increase in volume, so that new injury can be detected beyond the numbing of the medications.  Therefore, one’s tolerance to the medicines grows, making the medicine less effective, at the same time that new pain stimuli are experienced as more severe than they would naturally. The same thing, coincidentally, happens in heightened states of chronic stress.  New stimuli are experienced as much more anxiety or even panic provoking because one’s system is on such high alert.  Often these two go hand-in-hand, and pain medications are used (often subconsciously) as a way to numb stress and anxiety.  But, as you can see, it is a highly inadequate band-aid solution.

Hopefully, you can see the problems this causes, and why so many people find themselves hopelessly addicted to these powerful drugs.  When one is in pain, there is stress about the pain.  Stress creates tension, which worsens the pain. This leads to more stress, and around and around this cycle spins.  What is needed is a sweeping overhaul of how we talk about pain in our society, and training people at younger ages how to cope with physical discomfort and stress. 

**Here it is:  The key to effectively coping with pain and with stress is paradoxical, and counter to the natural way people tend to go about it.  It involves opening more fully to the experience of the uncomfortable sensations, thoughts, fear, emotions or whatever may be present along with the physical pain.

Let me explain.  Acknowledging that pain after injury or surgery, for instance, is normal, and opening completely to the actual experience of pain, not the anticipated or feared experience, is tantamount to reducing the grip the pain has on someone.  This may seem crazy at first blush.  However, my own experience has taught me this lesson.

In 1996, I suffered an attack of kidney stones.  I thought I was dying, literally dying.  I was rushed to the hospital, given pain medication and fluids, and lived in deathly fear that I would have to endure that again at some point, given the high recurrence rates of kidney stones.  Fast forward to 2014, the dreaded day came.  I awoke in the wee hours of the morning with that old familiar feeling.  It cannot be mistaken.  However, this time I was armed with six years of meditation practice and an awareness of how to acknowledge and allow bodily sensations to exist without grasping at something different or avoiding what was happening.  So, knowing the course of action that would ensue if I went to the hospital, but leaving it open if I needed it, I chose to open fully to the experience.  For 6 hours, I drink heavy amounts of water, and allowed myself to breathe with full awareness of the actual sensations I was having.  When I felt myself tensing up, I intentionally released the tension and turned full awareness back to the pain.  I could feel how the stone was moving down my ureter as the center of the pain moved, and I knew that I was close to freedom as it inched ever closer to my bladder.  And then, suddenly, it stopped. 

I am not saying you should not seek medical attention if you have severe pain.  Absolutely, it is the right thing to do.  What I am saying, is that each of us is naturally equipped with effective coping mechanisms to address physical, mental, or emotional pain, including our own internal morphine (endorphins).  By resisting the temptation to tense up and “wall off” the painful area, we can actually effectively deal with pain that arises in the moment, incur less stress in the process, and eventually slow the vicious spinning cycle to a steady halt.  Pain, like all things, is impermanent.  You know this, because you have had pain in your life that you don’t currently have.  Even if you suffer from chronic pain, using this type of strategy, you will notice fluxes and variations in the pain that may not be obvious to you, which can often help quite a bit, and lessen the need for prescription medications to control what pain is actually present.  At the very least, your relationship to the pain will start to shift, and it will tend to control and define you less.  That can be such a tremendous gift in itself.

Think of it this way.  Say you are having a holiday dinner party.  You are inviting your family and some of your closest friends.  You have one friend that you know is going through a significant rough spot in life, and has been very needy for a long period of time.  You know if you don’t invite him, that his feelings will be severely hurt.  But, if you do, then the party may take on a different, less desirable tone. 

Play out both scenarios in your head right now.  Not inviting your friend may heighten his sense of alienation, making his situation worse.  Also, you notice how guilty you feel not having invited him, and he is still present, even if not in person.  Inviting him and allowing him to be part of the festivities allows his difficult energy to be dissipated and absorbed by more people.  Perhaps simply allowing him to feel included plays a huge role in his own healing.  The added benefit is, you know in your heart it was the right thing to invite him, and you feel good about that.

When you have an ailing or painful body part, it is natural to try to wall it off and isolate it from the rest of your experience. However, it takes a lot of energy to do this, which takes a significant physical, mental, and emotional toll. It takes an intentional act and a lot of fortitude to embrace that area of the body and invite it “back to the party,” so to speak.  By doing so, however, you are allowed to again become whole and complete, and not at odds with your own body.  This body is your home and your refuge for your entire lifetime.  Diminishing it in any way is like living in a home, but only using a portion of the space, leaving a few rooms completely locked up and unused.  Why would you do this? 

The point is this:  Healing involves returning to the wholeness that is your most natural state and your birthright.  The only way to be whole is to fully experience your body as it is in any moment, even if it feels unpleasant.  It also means fully experiencing the fear, anger, thoughts, or whatever else may be going on in response, without indulging or avoiding any these things.  You allow these things to naturally arise and dissipate without needing to control, manipulate, or change any of them.  Treat the pain like an old friend, here to inform and protect you, not as the enemy.  Open your heart and cultivate love and compassion for a body that wants to work well, and doesn't want to be in pain any more than you do.  The fact is, in any moment, almost every part of your body is working perfectly, just for you to be alive.  It is not easy, but it is the path of your liberation, and is well worth the effort. 

And maybe, just maybe, more people embracing this type of approach to the pain and stress that is naturally a part of our lives could be the key to effectively addressing one of the biggest and ugliest epidemics of our generation. I may be a dreamer, but I remain optimistic about the strength and capabilities of people, as well as the amazing healing power of the human body.   That’s all for now.

In Peace and Gratitude,

Peter Buecker, MD

Peter Buecker