mental health

Pain's Life? No My Life!

Doctors can objectively measure blood pressure, heart rate, change in the number of antibodies or cells, and many other indicators of health and illness. How can pain be measured? Health professionals can ask people how much they hurt on a scale of 1 to 10 and monitor subjective changes in pain, or they can simply ask one to describe how he or she feels, but pain cannot be objectively rated. Sometimes when a person is in extreme pain, physical changes can occur, such as changes in heart rate; however, the level of pain that may lead to bodily changes in one person can be higher or lower than the level that will result in the same changes in another person. We all have different levels of pain tolerance.

Pain is a complicated phenomena; the experience varying from person to person and influenced by sociocultural norms, gender, age, mood, levels of stress, and one's ability to cope with the pain, as well as other factors. All people at some time in their lives experience pain, but many people who live with chronic physical illness have to manage pain much more often than those who do not. Having to manage pain on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis can be frustrating, exhausting, and can take a huge toll on one's psychological well being. It is easy to feel depressed and defeated, and to sometimes become preoccupied with the pain as if it has taken over your life. Is it possible for you to take over the pain and to control your life?

When many moments are spent wondering when the pain will stop, little time remains for living and enjoying. Shifting focus from the pain to something interesting and pleasurable enough to make you want to be thankful for your life...even for a life with suffering is more than possible. Buddhist monk Pema Chodron writes, "If we're willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation" (Chodron, 2005, p. 46). Surprisingly, if one stops thinking about when the pain will end and allows space for thinking about something else, the pain will end for that time. This is how meditation works. People can train their mind to focus on whatever they want it to focus on, while relaxing in the experience that they are in in the moment--even a painful one. This is one of the reasons why pain tolerance varies from person to person. And if someone is paying attention to something that he or she enjoys it will likely affect his or her mood, and in effect mood also influences pain levels. When a person is happy at a given moment, he or she is likely to experience less pain than if the same person is unhappy in that same situation. It is a chain reaction.

All that said, this is not an easy process. Although it is difficult to measure pain objectively, physical pain is real and it hurts. It takes a lot of courage and strength to stand up to pain, and this process itself can be painful. Pain can be very powerful but do not forget that you are even more powerful. This is one of the reasons why pain tolerance varies between different people...because people can control the pain. You choose how to spend your time--your life. It is your life, not the pain's!

Chodron, P. (2005). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Boston: Shambala.