Pain. Its one of the most primitive forms of feedback in your body.
Its primitive because it is linked to the ancient parts of your brain, the reptilian brain or brainstem (Ill call it your lizard brain) and your spinal cord. This lizard brain is associated with knee-jerk reactions that function in a habitual, patterned way.
Short-sighted and unable to alter either inherited or learned patterns of behavior, your lizard brain is your survival system.
Less evolved than your limbic system (the part of your brain associated with emotion) and your cerebral cortex (the part of your brain that gives you the ability to observe your sensory experiences including pain, and interpret what they mean), your ancient brain is wired for swift decisions unimpeded by emotions or any other considerations that might interfere with a quick reaction in an emergency.
Beneath your awareness, your lizard brain handles numerous decisions about your well being including the mobilization of all systems for your bodys defense.
Why Pain Is a Good Thing
The ability to feel pain is a good thing.
Acute pain alerts you that youre injured and that you need to change your behavior to avoid further damage and ensure your survival. Chronic pain alerts you when youve failed to change your behavior at the onset of an injury, and informs you of an underlying damaging situation that hasnt been resolved.
A rare condition called congenital analgesia results in the inability to feel pain at all. People with this disorder are so ill-equipped for everyday life that they must be closely monitored at all times. They can bite off the tip of their tongue, or put themselves in mortal danger and not even know theres a problem.
So the truth is you want pain, you just dont want it when its inconvenient or disruptive to your life. Thats the paradox with pain: We want to have pain when we need it, but when we have it we usually think we dont need it.
You Can Help Pain Work For You
Pain can actually be a powerful catalyst for improving your life.
When youre in pain your body has already gotten your attention, but most likely that attention is focused on whats wrong (thats what your lizard brain does best).
When pain disrupts our lives, we usually want to find out whats wrong so we can fix it quickly and get on with the show. We want to get back to our normal lives as soon as possible.
The problem with our lizard brains though, is that they have no vision for the future. They have no creativity. They cant see new options or possibilities.
Our lizard brains by themselves cant come up with new life-strategies in response to the disruptions that pain causes, which is why so many people stay mired in chronic pain cycles and just keep doing the same things over and over to try to manage their pain.
Without the assistance of your higher brain, your lizard brain only has limited options. It can react, but it cant process subtle feedback about your emotional experience, it cant investigate the physical, mental and emotional factors that might be contributing to the pain, it cant question why you are behaving the way you are or decide what to do next.
Until you find a way to engage your higher brain, youre unable to adopt a perspective that can turn the disruption that the pain has caused you into positive change.
How to Engage Your Higher Brain
Fortunately there are ways to engage your higher brain and turn your pain into a transformational force.
Here are the 3 fundamental steps:
1. Cultivate Awareness – If you cant find it you cant fix it.
Pain thrives in an unaware/sub-conscious environment. When you try to ignore the part of your body thats in pain, or numb it out with drugs instead of paying attention and changing your behavior accordingly, the pain will usually persist.
Because the ancient parts of your brain that initiate fight-or-flight reactions dont have the ability to process and derive meaning from the subtle sensory cues within your body (they specialize in preparing you for defensive action, and in the process actually reduce your subtle awareness) it often becomes difficult to cultivate the awareness within to break the pain cycle. But you can do it.
To become more aware of the part of your body that is in pain, start by placing your hands on the painful area and focusing your attention on the specific location, quality and features of it.
Gently breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth and seek to momentarily suspend your story about it (why you think the pain is there, what you think is wrong etc.) Do this by focusing solely on the noticeable characteristics of the area; Is it hot, cool, rigid, taught, numb?
Do you see a color, shape or texture (like a fiery red sphere or black amorphous blob). Do you sense or even hear a vibration, tone or sound? Take note of the physical characteristics and qualities of that part of your body, as well as any visual or auditory feedback.
Just the act of placing your full attention on a painful area begins to engage your higher brain. This focused attention is the foundation for new awareness.
2. Acknowledge What You Discover – As-Is it.
Acknowledge the pain by keeping your attention on the area, touching it, and breathing gently while observing it as it is without trying to change it, improve it or fix it.
Herein lies a paradox: In order to change your pain you must first fully associate with it with no agenda to change it.
This might be the most challenging step in the process, especially when you desperately want the pain gone. But until you stop trying to make your pain something different than it is, you havent really acknowledged it.
Acknowledgement is recognizing the existence or the truth of something, and it is a crucial step in engaging your higher brain.
To acknowledge, just name your experience. You might say out loud it really hurts right here, I hurt right here, or I am in so much pain right here, for example. You might also just whimper, groan, scream or cry if necessary – whichever feels more authentic.
Sometimes the area thats in pain feels like a void when you touch it, as if your awareness just cant penetrate the area. It thats the case, just acknowledge it with a statement such as right here I feel disconnected.
Keep your focused attention on the painful area with the goal of simply being with it as it is and continue to acknowledge what you notice. This requires a level of presence to the interior sensations in your body that requires the assistance of your higher brain.
3. Accept Your Experience – Stop protesting and get “real”.
In fight-or-flight mode your higher brain centers are essentially hijacked by your reptilian brain, and you temporarily lose your ability to pay attention within and make holistic decisions from a more global perspective.
But once your higher brain centers are engaged you naturally begin to make associations between your symptoms, subjective feelings and behaviors, allowing you to discover new pathways and possibilities for creating progress.
Accepting your experience as it is sounds simple enough, but a lot of people get tripped up here.
That’s because when were in pain we usually dont want to accept it – we want it gone!
You mean you want me to accept that I am immobilized with pain and cant go to work? I HAVE TO go to work! Who else is going to pay the bills? Im supporting an entire family. Theyre all counting on me. You want me to accept this? Youre nuts. Theres no way Im going to accept this. Ill find a way out. Ill find a way to get this fixed even if it requires drastic measures. Whatever it takes, Ill do it. Ive got to perform. Im not going to get stuck living like this. I dont have the luxury of just laying around and wallowing in my pain. I need to get on with things. Im not going to become useless. Ive got plans.
These are common reactions to pain. However, accepting your situation doesnt mean youre going to get stuck in your experience!
Acceptance is simply a person’s agreement to experience a situation (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit. Once fully accepted, the situation typically begins to feel dramatically different.
To accept your pain all you have to do is stop protesting what is, hold the part of your body that hurts with presence and compassion and say something like, I fully accept that this is where Im at right now.
While you are touching the painful part of your body you might also say something like, I fully accept you. I fully accept this experience. I am paying attention. I am here now.
Somewhere in the process of placing focused awareness on, acknowledging and accepting your pain, a discovery typically occurs. It might come in the form of an insight or realization, a sudden wave of emotion such as grief or anger, or a deep sense of connection to your inner-self that you havent felt for a long time.
When your higher brain centers are activated and focused attention is put on painful areas in this way, new awareness and meaning can arise that contribute to reorganizational changes in your mind and body.
Previously inaccessible energy and information that was stored as tension can then become a source of fuel for necessary changes.
Sometimes that fuel manifests as a flood of emotion. Other times it shows up as a sense of increased peace or ease that uplifts and inspires us. It can even show up as a physical detoxification, or a spontaneous shaking or shuddering of the body.
When you connect to yourself through focused attention on your body, theres a realness and an authenticity that emerges from your higher brain-engagement that begins to inform your decisions going forward.
Do you need more rest? Do you need more movement? Do you need to cry? Do you need to stretch that part of your body? Do you need express your anger or upset about something? Do you need to see a professional?
The answers to these questions come from higher brain awareness. Somewhere within you already know what to do, you just have to tap into the part of you that can get you moving in the right direction.
If youre in pain try the 3 steps (and consider forwarding this post to someone you know whos struggling with chronic pain). If it feels like the steps arent working, be sure to acknowledge that youre feeling like theyre not working in the process. You might say, I feel like this isnt working, It feels like this will never work or I feel like this pain is never going to end.
Your goal is NOT to go through this process to make the pain go away. Your goal is to connect within, engage your higher brain and gain insight into what needs to happen for the pain to resolve.
The more empowered and resourceful a person is, the harder it can sometimes be for them to accept the powerless feeling that often accompanies pain. It takes embracing the paradox of pain and becoming aware of, acknowledging and accepting the situation as-it-is for true change to happen.