Pain — both emotional and physical — seems to have become a disorder in and of itself. But treating pain as the problem can sometimes land us in even greater pain.
Many clients come to me because of pain in one guise or another. They are depressed, anxious, or perhaps guilty. They want to “feel better.” I can hardly fault them for this. Yet emotional pain is either a call to action or a phantom signal. In either case, a focus on simply getting out of pain becomes an obstacle to long-term success.
Listening to Pain
If we blindly treat pain as a problem in and of itself, we lose the original function of pain: to warn us when we have been hurt and how to avoid doing further damage.
Emotional pain has a similar function. When exposed to threats, we feel fear and prepare to either flee or fight our way out of the dangerous situation. When we suffer a loss we feel a sadness that may drive us to pull back, seek security, and reassess what we did before the loss. Guilt naturally results when we violate our own standards for conduct. Like pain, each of these emotions is aversive: we want to get away from them. And yet they each have a message for us and call for specific behavior to resolve them.
Sometimes the mechanisms for physical pain go haywire. Pain that outlasts an injury is called idiopathic pain. The usual remedies of rest and rehabilitation don’t apply because the signal is false. In this case, the pain really has become the problem and needs to be addressed directly by an expert in pain management.
By direct analogy, when sadness outlasts its usefulness, when anxiety appears without danger, or when guilt is divorced from any wrongdoing, it’s time to question whether the signal is genuine or false. Therapists are experts at sorting through the varieties of emotional pain and helping clients ferret out the underlying causes.
Unfortunately, in a number of ways, we don’t take time to listen to pain. Instead we try to make it go away as fast as possible, by whatever means necessary.
Flight of the Helicopter Parents
The now-archetypal helicopter parents get flack for protecting their little ones not only from failure and disappointment, but also from pain itself. When a parent interferes with a child who has suffered some modest injury, the unspoken message is “you can’t handle this and this pain needs to stop right now.” Young children calibrate their own sense of danger in response to their parents’ reactions. To overreact as a parent in this context is to grant the injury more import than it deserves. The instinct to protect and shelter our young is a strong one, and very often the right answer, but not this time. The short-term reduction in the child’s pain (and the parent’s anxiety) comes at a much higher long-term cost.
The Pill Bottle Solution
Prescription drug abuse is rampant and it often starts innocently enough. Patients go to their doctors with entirely genuine complaints of pain and injury. As part of their treatment they are prescribed powerful medications both with the power to control pain and the power to addict. All too many doctors and patients alike seem content to chemically blunt the symptoms for today without much thought towards longer-term solutions. All too often, addiction sets in. The medication that used to provide a specific solution to a short-term problem has now become an unlimited and ever-increasing need.
Marketers Bring the Pain
I’ve heard it said that advertising is about making the consumer feel pain, then giving them the solution to that pain. If we didn’t feel the pain of not being constantly in touch with the rest of the world, smartphones would not have sold as well as they have. Advertising tries to get us to lower the bar for how little pain and trouble we should accept. But if we buy into the idea that everything in life should be as quick and easy as a microwave burrito, then how will we react when the going gets tough? Will we give up, or look for a magic pill or potion to make our plight easier? The marketers hope we will.
Grace under Pressure
Without the experience of pain or distress, we can’t discover the scope of our capabilities. John McCain, who survived years of imprisonment in the infamous Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war, talked about how his fellow prisoners assumed he would die from his wounds within a week, but he in fact survived the war itself and returned to become a prominent politician. No one should have to go through what those prisoners experienced and yet a stark absence of pain, hardship, and discouragement prevent us from recognizing the depth of our strength and resilience.
A Painful Lesson
So far I’ve had the good fortune to avoid suffering anywhere near John McCain’s, yet I’ve also had the opportunity to learn from pain (though I certainly didn’t see it as an “opportunity” at the time). Late in my 20s, I started having severe abdominal pain, briefly at first, but then one night it wouldn’t go away and I started vomiting just from the pain alone. Although I got to the hospital and they did start me on pain medication, relief was neither as fast or as complete as I would have liked.
It’s an odd situation, to be in severe pain, yet be safe in the care of good doctors and nurses, with my wife at my side. Although I hurt horribly, there was nothing for me to do and in fact, no need for me to do anything. The doctors had convinced me that, however bad it was, I wasn’t dying and they’d figure out the problem. The pain didn’t change in how it felt, but in what it meant. I was free not to do anything about the pain and that made it a lot more bearable.
In retrospect, having that experience of extreme pain provides me a reference point both of how much pain I can tolerate, and that pain doesn’t automatically require a panic response. I’ve hurt badly in the past, I probably will again in the future, and that seems not such a scary thing now that I’ve experienced it.