Over the years I’ve seen a great deal of advice to the effect that the best way to deal with pain is to show up for it. Be embodied, practice mindfulness. The idea that pain comes from not paying enough attention and that self care starts with showing up can sound persuasive. Except that, like a lot of people who deal with pain, I find it doesn’t work for me.
Recently I ran into this article about pain which has raised some interesting issues for me – https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/28/sufferers-of-chronic-pain-have-long-been-told-its-all-in-their-head-we-now-know-thats-wrong
We know that brains form pathways and that the things we do and think habitually give us the easiest pathways for our thoughts to run down. Habits are powerful things, and habitual thought can trap us in really unhelpful relationships with the world.
Pain is no different from anything else we deal with, once its in the central nervous system, it’s all messages and pathways. It makes sense that pain would build habitual pathways in exactly the same ways that anxious thinking can. That in turn would mean that a person who has experienced a lot of pain would be more likely to process a physical experience as painful. Or more painful.
Emotional pain doesn’t exist in some separate system from all of this. Trauma happens inside our bodies. Whatever happens to us, it happens to us as whole systems. Healing from anxiety can depend on not engaging too much with the anxious thoughts and feelings when they arise. What if, sometimes, pain works in much the same way? What if the body can learn pain responses? What if pain is dialed up by long or repeating experiences of pain because we carve it out as a pathway in our brains?
It would mean that for some of us, the best thing to do with pain is to pay it as little attention as possible. It would mean not being mindful, not being too embodied, but keeping all of that out of our thoughts in order not to reinforce the pain pathways.
Pain isn’t one thing that works the same way for all of us. The solutions to it are going to be equally diverse and complicated. I’m so relieved that we’re starting to see research that takes a broader approach to pain and that doesn’t assume that those of us reporting a lot of it are just making a fuss.
If pain is rewiring your body, and changing how you experience pain, then perhaps the best bet is to try not to show up for that.