The other night I started to have extreme pain in my abdomen. I couldn’t find a comfortable sitting or lying position and walking was out of the question. I knew that I was not having labor contractions because those are short-lived and I was experiencing near-constant pain. I started to wonder if the pain meant something terrible was happening in my uterus, for example, if my placenta was becoming detached. And then I decided to clear my mind of what the pain could “mean” and to really focus on my body.
With mindful attention, I felt that the pain was not in my uterus, it seemed to be behind my uterus. I decided to experiment with more positions, including some Yoga poses. When I went on my hands and knees, I felt immediate relief, and then the cause of the pain was clear to me. A lot of gas was caught in my squished and shortened intestines (my colon was surgically removed in 2002). I remembered that I’ve felt similar pain during colonoscopy procedures in which air is pumped into the intestines (to ensure the scope does not puncture them). (I usually choose not to be sedated during these procedures.)
I had to temporarily let go of my drive to make meaning of the pain in order to discover the actual cause of my pain, and subsequent relief.
Those of us who have lived with chronic pain for a long time may not see how often our minds make meanings of pain. It is a natural process, sometimes unconscious. We are meaning-making creatures. Meanings give us a frame and a way to make sense of our experiences. Some people with chronic pain ascribe a meaning of “interferer” to their pain. They see the pain as something that interferes with how they want to live their lives. Some people with chronic pain go even further and perceive that their pain is ruining their lives or keeping them from something that their hearts desire. Some people go back and forth between positive and negative meanings of their pain. Some days, the pain is a “teacher” that gives them the opportunity to learn something–patience, for example. Other days, the pain is a “spoiler,” or something in that vein. We are often barely aware of how many times we devise meanings for our pain, and yet the meaning-making process is important to understand.
If we feel trapped by our pain, it is likely that our minds have made a meaning of the pain that triggers a negative emotional reaction. It could happen on such a subtle level that we hardly notice the change happening, and then all of a sudden, we feel more frustrated or grumpy or irritable than usual. Maybe we even feel depressed. We may undergo physiological changes that coincide with our emotions: feeling more tension in our muscles, feeling extreme fatigue, or feeling a pit/hot rock in our stomachs. Our physiological responses may contribute to the worsening of our pain. Stress, in particular, can be a factor in the intensification of pain. And so we may get caught in a vicious cycle of sorts. How do we free ourselves?
We need to be aware of the ways in which we make meanings of our pain, and the beliefs we have about our pain. If we are able to see how one thought can spiral into a thought-stream, which can spiral into negative meanings and beliefs about the pain, we can begin to also slow down this spiraling process. With a lot of awareness, we may even be able to step off of the thought-spiral.
In my opinion and experience, the most effective practice one can use to step off the spiral is to bring gentle awareness to the body itself. The positive findings in studies on mindfulness for people with chronic pain may be due, at least in part, to this practice. By returning our attention to the body, we stop spinning out in our thoughts, and we come in direct contact with the physical sensations–not just of pain, but even of non-pain in the body (for there is usually at least one place in the body that is free of pain). In the open space of gentle awareness (free from reactive thinking), we may discover that the painful sensations come and go or that there are short pauses between the sensations. We may also give our bodies a chance to really relax, which they probably need.
I’m not advocating for non-stop awareness of the pain, because sometimes even gentle awareness of it for some length of time can feel overwhelming. My advice: if you need to distract yourself for a little while, then really stop and give some thought to what you choose to distract yourself with. If you are going to surf the Internet or watch television, surf the Internet or watch television with intention. Of course, these are not your only options. You could go outside or get together with friends or listen to some soothing music or read or make some kind of silly artsy-crafty thing or cook something totally delicious or sing out loud or do something completely zany…the options are endless. There are many things you could do instead of getting caught in a negative thought-spiral about your pain.