Can You Be With Your Pain?

Angie Netterville, PTA, CMT

When we feel discomfort in our bodies, most of us typically do our best to shut it down or to avoid feeling it. It is a natural and reasonable response to want to make pain disappear. People who have chronic symptoms usually become masters at disconnecting from their pain, and rightfully so. It’s a protective mechanism that has become necessary for them to be able to function in their day to day life. But what if we were able to be with our pain? What would happen if we could quietly settle into the discomfort we feel in our bodies, connect to it and understand it better?

This is not to suggest that this is an easy task. Far from it. But if you’re open to trying to follow these steps, any discomfort you feel has a better potential to at least become more manageable.

FEEL…When we experience pain, our immediate response is usually to make it go away. We take medication, rub on creams, and look for any pain relieving modalities. We do just about anything we can to avoid the discomfort. While I’m not saying these are wrong options, what if we could instead just focus on what we feel?

ACKNOWLEDGE…Once we allow ourselves to feel our discomfort, we can then acknowledge and accept that this pain is within us. Typically we categorize pain as bad or negative.But if we can accept that it simply IS without labels or judgement, we help to eliminate resistance in our bodies. What we resist persists, so it’s an important to let go of resistance in order to eventually let go of pain.

BE with your pain. I always get very funny looks when I ask my patients to be with their pain. But when we take the time to quiet our minds and be as present in our pain as we are physically capable, the underlying emotions associated with the pain can surface and reveal themselves. Instead of attempting to push it away, make time to be with it.

That now brings us to the deepest reasons why pain would linger in our bodies, our emotions. You may be thinking “My pain comes from the injury I sustained in an accident. What does that have to do with emotions?” Yes, the injury itself will cause discomfort in our bodies, but the emotions we feel during the process of healing…worry, fear, anger, frustration, sorrow, etc…usually get pushed down and stifled causing them to stay trapped in our tissues. Tissue holds memory. And as the emotional memory comes to surface simply by being present and allowing ourselves to feel it, the pain can pass through.

To give an example, I had been having nagging shoulder and neck pain for months. I attributed it to the awkward postures I often need to be in while working and to spending too much time with my head hanging forward while reading. These were certainly both contributing factors. I stretched, received Myofascial Release, my husband massaged my shoulders, and I became very careful with posture.

These were all very helpful and did decrease my discomfort, but the pain kept coming back. It wasn’t until I really slowed down to be present with the pain (yes, even we therapists avoid this part of it sometimes) that I became aware that my ongoing pain was related to my family. At the time, there were two close family members who were feuding and not speaking to each other.

I realized that the frustration and helplessness I was feeling about this was like a weight on my shoulders. This emotional weight on my shoulders was causing so much physical discomfort in my body. When I allowed myself to feel, acknowledge and be with these feelings and this pain, the pain subsided and hasn’t returned. Five minutes of tears allowed me to release the pain I had been holding for months. Yes, every situation is different, so I’m not saying 5 minutes will do the trick every time. But it is possible to chip away at it if you consistently give time to what you feel.

So how would you go about this process for yourself? Here are some suggestions.

1) Find a quiet place where you can be alone. If being alone isn’t possible, do the best you can. Sit or lie down and just notice what you feel. You can do this while stretching or using your ball for self release too. Try to quiet your thoughts and simply feel into your body. You might mentally scan each area from head to toe, or just choose the one spot where you know pain has been intense and keep your focus right there.

2) Acknowledge what you feel without judgement. Allow whatever you feel to be present. This may be difficult, but do the best you can to stay with it and simply notice. To help with this, you might think of sending your breath to the most intense area.

3) Be with what you feel. You might only be able to stay with it for seconds at a time, but do what you can. Come back to it as you are able and notice if you feel any emotions surface. Whatever you feel is okay. It doesn’t have to be pretty or nice. It often feels chaotic and messy, but it doesn’t have to. Whatever comes to you is what is right for you in that moment. You may feel the need to cry, scream into a pillow or pound the wall or bed to allow these feelings to pass through. There is no need to stifle what you feel as long as there is no physical harm to you or someone else. 

If none of this feels possible and you just can’t go there or allow it to happen, that’s perfectly fine too. You’re allowed to be right where you are. Just be open to the possibility of things surfacing where and when they need to.

We therapists are here for support, so please feel free to comment.

Angie Netterville, PTA, CMT has been practicing physical therapy since 1995 and has been with Hands On since 2009. Besides her training in Myofascial Release, Angie has a background in Pilates, athletic performance training, and Kundalini yoga and meditation.