Pain is sadly a part of life, but it doesn’t have to be something that brings you down. Pain can be an opportunity to practice self-compassion. In an earlier post about listening to your body, I discussed how the body communicates all sorts of things to us through sensation; pain is one of the ways that the body communicates.
Why do we have pain?
The body doesn’t speak in words, it speaks in sensations. Pain is a signal from our body to our brain that something is amiss. The pain can be pleasurable, like when you stretch, or uncomfortable, when something is wrong. Maybe we have an injury and our body doesn’t want us to make it worse, like when we pull a muscle. The pain we feel is a signal that tells us not to use that muscle in that way until it heals. Maybe the pain is a headache due to dehydration, telling us to drink water. Perhaps the pain is acid reflux because we ate something that didn’t agree with us or wasn’t healthy for our body. If we feel lower back pain from slouching at our computer or on the couch, it might be an indication for us to work on our posture. Pain is information, we just have to figure out what it means.
What does pain have to do with self-compassion?
Many times when we feel pain, we get down on ourselves for doing something “wrong.”
- I shouldn’t have done that.
- I shouldn’t have eaten that.
- Why didn’t I stop?
- Why wasn’t I paying attention?
- Why do I always do that?
Does any of this sound familiar? Our self talk when we have pain is often self-blame, we blame ourselves for not doing better or being smarter; we regret our actions in some way, wishing that we could change what happened so we wouldn’t have to feel pain. Unfortunately, until scientists find a way to time travel, we are stuck with the past that we have.
The first step to finding self-compassion is to accept that the past is as it is and there is nothing we can do to change it. It sounds simple, but sometimes that can be really challenging. The more we wish that things weren’t as they were, the more we get stuck in the past. Accepting the way things are is the only way to move forward.
Self-compassion is a way toward acceptance, accepting that we are feeling pain in this moment. We are not creating stories about the pain (I did something bad, I am bad, I am an idiot…), we are simply feeling the pain as it is. We are not blaming ourselves for the pain, we are just feeling it. Seeing the pain as information and not as an indication of our worth helps with that.
Last year I was washing dishes by hand and sliced my thumb on a chipped cup. It was pretty painful and bloody. I needed stitches and was out of work for a few days. Initially I was mad at myself because “if I wasn’t so stupid, I wouldn’t have cut myself.” That was the story I was telling myself. If I was talking to a friend, I would have told her that it was an accident, and accidents happen. Interesting that our self talk is so different. I wasn’t a stupid person for cutting my hand, it happens. And it happened, so wasting my energy on regret wasn’t going to get me back to work any faster. Having self- compassion wasn’t getting me back to work faster either, but the pause I was forced to take in my life was an opportunity to slow down and be kind to myself.
The Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” This includes being kind to ourselves. Talking to myself like I would a friend stopped me from adding to my pain, as our mind and body are connected.
We can’t control our pain, but we can control how we relate to it
Our body feels pain, it’s part of life, but we don’t have to be a victim to our pain. We don’t have to blame ourselves for our pain or talk down to ourselves, regardless of the cause. On a typical pain scale, where 0 is no pain and 10 is “give me morphine!” stress and anxiety can make a 5 an 8, and acceptance can make that same 5 a 3. Pain can be subjective and while mindset might not remove the pain altogether, it might make it more tolerable and less problematic. The more we blame ourselves for our pain, the higher our stress and anxiety. The more loving we can be toward ourselves, the lower the stress and anxiety, and the lower our experience of our pain.
Tips for self-compassion and lowering pain levels
- Talk to yourself like someone you love. Our self talk tends to be critical, judgemental and down right mean sometimes. You would never speak to someone else the way you speak to yourself, so why is speaking to yourself that way okay? Well it’s not. It’s actually pretty abusive. Notice when you are getting down on yourself for being in pain, and instead, speak to yourself like you would a friend. You wouldn’t blame your friend for twisting their ankle, you’d offer them comfort and compassion. You can do that for yourself too.
- When you are experiencing intense pain, breathe. There is a reason women are told to breathe during childbirth. It helps. When you can feel your pain but focus on your breath, it can bring the pain level down. Take slow, deep breaths in and out through the nose, working to slow down the exhale so that it is longer than the inhale. The exhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) which is the relaxation response. The longer you exhale without forcing it, the more time your body has to relax. The more your body relaxes, the lower the subjective experience of pain.
- Notice your self-talk when you go down Self-Pity Road. Especially with chronic pain, there is the tendency to feel self-pity. While experiencing chronic pain is awful, your mindset will make all the difference in how you cope with it. Instead of self-pity (woe is me, my life sucks), try self-compassion (this pain is hard, but I can get through this moment). Brene Brown defines Self-Compassion as being able to “relate to yourself in a way that is forgiving, accepting, and loving when situations might be less than optimal.” Having chronic pain, or even acute pain, is definitely less than optimal, but can you still be loving toward yourself, accepting that in this moment you have pain. You have no control over how long the pain will last, but in this moment, you can breathe and be loving toward yourself. The pity arises when you are wishing things were different; the compassion activates when you can love yourself as you are, no matter what.
- Move your body in a way that feels good. When you break your leg, for example, there are limits to how you can move, but movement isn’t impossible. While you might not be going for a run, you can stretch your upper body, or you can do seated exercises. Resting is essential while you are healing, as it take a lot of energy to heal, but movement is also important, especially for mental health. Find a way to move, breathe, stretch, and strengthen, and you will feel better. However, you need to listen to your body, if you feel any pain, stop what you are doing.
Practicing yoga is a way to move your body and ease certain types of pain, especially the pain from sitting at a desk or driving a lot. Click here to see my full schedule of online yoga classes for all levels. I have both live and on demand classes.
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