Episode 10.5 – A special note on pain.

I want to have a brief discussion early on in this series about pain.

Pain is an incredibly common symptom that I see. It can be extremely debilitating and difficult to treat.

Because of this pain is a difficult subject, and when people are experiencing chronic pain it can make the kind of work we trying to do together extremely challenging.  In episode 1 I said it is hard to be happy when you have a fever and are vomiting. Well, the same goes for pain too.

We have been considering our mental and emotional reaction to the world, to stressful situations, or to illness, and thinking about if it is within our power to actively influence these; to choose to feel more healthy on purpose. But pain is frequently a barrier to this, and for good reason.

We can’t just “pretend” we don’t have pain. I am not saying…

“if you have pain you should choose not to, and then you will feel better”.

That is clearly ridiculous and it is not what I am trying to say.

But this is sometimes how it comes across, how people suffering from pain naturally interpret it. And the likely response is to reject the work altogether, to dismiss it as nonsense. It might seem like the pain is not being taken seriously, that you are not being taken seriously, that I am saying “It’s all in your head”.

I am absolutely not saying it’s all in your head, I do not think people are making it up, or that people in pain are suffering because they are weak, or inadequate.

But these are common fears amongst people who are unfortunate enough to suffer from chronic pain; that other people, doctors, employers, friends and family don’t take them seriously, that they don’t understand how difficult it is to live in pain.

I think the reason this sentiment is so common must be because chronic pain is so bad, so horrendous. There aren’t the words to express enough sympathy for it, to understand the degree of disability, impairment and suffering that people experience at the hands of chronic pain.

This is further complicated because the western medicine treatments for pain are often not as effective as we would like. They can also be addictive and have a lot of unpleasant side effects. This can lead to very difficult situations where people are crying out to their doctor for help, sometimes in desperation, and the doctor is reluctant to prescribe more pain relief. I think this can also seem like a rejection, or a judgement, or a dismissal. It adds to the feeling that the condition is not being taken seriously.

It is precisely because of the severity of the condition that it is so difficult to treat. It is also why there is so much emotion tied up with it and why pain is such a complex topic.

The good news is that I believe that progressive medicine does have something to offer to people who suffer with chronic pain, and it isn’t by simply choosing not to be in pain, and it isn’t because “the pain is just in your head.”

It’s because humans are incredibly complicated, and the pathways that cause pain are not just simple cause and effect signals that we can block with a drug. That’s why the drugs are so often ineffective.

I believe It can bepossible to gain some control over pain, or at least to reduce the negative impact it can have on your life. Think of Monks lying on beds of needles, walking on fire, or people who have surgery without any anesthetic. You can’t choose not to have the physical sensations in your body, but you can try to work on your thoughts and emotional responses to those sensations. To your thoughts about what the pain says about you, what it means others will think about you, and how the pain defines you as a person.

The bad news is it is going to be difficult. I can’t promise that you will be pain free after listening to a few podcasts (I think that would be not taking it seriously). Because pain is so debilitating I think it is one of the hardest things to deal with, no matter how you try; whether it is with western medicine and drugs, or alternative therapies, or with mediation and thought work, it is always going to be much harder to get the result you want.

However, because of how bad it is, there is also a lot to gain from doing the work. It is worth the extra effort it takes to take back the control of your own health. 

So, I want you to try to feel positive, to feel hopeful, as we go forward with this work. But also know that it is going to be a slow step by step process. I want you to try, if you can, to leave pain to one side just for the time being, and to try to focus on the other aspects of your life and health. Working on pain is the advanced class, and we are just getting started. It can be difficult for your brain to apply this work to pain when you start out, and it may be a barrier to your progress, but in time we will come back to pain.

So if I am not focusing on pain with this early work, it is not because I am dismissing it, or not taking it seriously. It is the opposite. It is because I understand that of all the health problems I try to treat, chronic pain is one of the most unpleasant, intrusive and emotionally charged.

When you first learn to swim you don’t start with a triple back from the high board, and it’s the same with learning to be healthy.

So, I hope you will stick with me for a few more sessions in the shallow end, until we are ready to venture up the high board together, and hopefully I will see you here next time.