What to do with severe pain

We all get it at least once, except for those rare individuals who are born without the capacity to feel pain. Those people tend to die young because they don’t get important messages from their bodies. There are folks who get pain once in a great while, maybe they get an infection or burn themselves on a hot stove. There are folks that experience flares of pain from various health conditions, be it an old injury or a chronic disease. And there are also folks who live with pain almost every day. Pain becomes blended in with their every day experiences of life.

I’ve experienced all three categories and fortunately I only experience pain once in a while these days. When I feel pain, I have different strategies for dealing with it and I choose my strategy based on the level of pain.

If the pain is severe–a level of 7, 8, 9, or 10 out of 10–I mostly choose the following core strategies:

  • I choose a direct action to try to alleviate the pain – this could mean taking medicine, taking a hot shower, putting ice on my body, lying down or practicing deep, slow breathing. It depends on what I think is “causing” the pain. I listen to my body and try to understand its messages. What is happening and what does it need? Is the cause an infection? Do I need to see a physician?
  • I direct compassion toward myself – I make the effort to stop and take care of myself. I send myself loving-kindness and compassion. Yes, it is hard to deal with this pain. I give myself the kind of care that I would want someone else to give me. I let myself feel what I am feeling. If I need to cry, I cry. If I need to curse, I curse. I just let it come up and out of my body. I gently accept whatever it is that I am feeling in the moment, but I stop judging my experience. I drop whatever thoughts seem to be fueling the negative feelings and focus directly on accepting the feelings themselves, naming them, “Ah, there is sadness, there is frustration, there is anger…” I don’t repress the feelings or try to change them, I just give myself the space to feel them directly (see Tara Brach’s description of RAIN, a method of working with difficulties).
  • I alternate between distraction and mindfulness – I practice mindfulness of the sensations and become aware of where exactly I am experiencing the pain in my body. I pay attention to the nature of the pain. Is it throbbing or sharp or dull? Is it constant or are there spaces in the pain? I experiment with different positions to see what seems to make the pain better or worse. After going deep into the sensations for a little while, I distract my attention. I especially like to watch comedy shows! Laughter is good medicine! I return to my mindfulness of the sensations every so often and then switch to distraction again. I also practice mindfulness of the places in my body that are not in pain. Where is there “non-ache” in my body?
  • I give myself reminders – There have been times in my life when I have felt overwhelmed by the intensity of pain and those times have always passed. I experienced the temporal nature of pain. Pain is always temporary. Even if it seemed like it was my constant companion, the quality of the pain changed over time. I remind myself that pain is temporary. I remind myself that I have a choice in how to respond to the pain, which is just a set of sensations in my body. I remind myself that pain is something almost all humans experience, and it does not mean something is wrong with me. It means I’m human! I remind myself that the pain gives me an opportunity to experience compassion.
  • To cope with difficult emotions that often accompany severe pain, I practice “Touch and Go” meditation and Tonglen meditation, both of which help to awaken compassion and transform difficult feelings. With Touch and Go, I alternate my awareness of the feelings and where they live in my body with sounds outside (usually bird songs). I stop thinking about my “storyline,” which is usually feeding unpleasant feelings. Every time the storyline comes up, I drop it and go back to naming the feelings and exploring their physical manifestation in my body. Tara Brach wrote, “Sensations are always changing and moving. If we habitually interrupt and constrict their natural process of transformation by resisting them or trying to hold on to them, by tightening against them in our body or telling ourselves stories, it’s like damming up or diverting the course of a river. It’s easy to let the river flow when sensations are pleasant. But when they’re not, when we are in emotional or physical pain, we tend to contract and pull away. Seeing this and learning how to meet pain with radical acceptance is one of the most challenging and liberating of practices.” Instructions for Tonglen are on the Shambhala website. Essentially, I breathe in the heaviness of the pain and I breathe out a sense of space and relief. I do this for a while and then I breathe in the heaviness of the pain and as I breathe out, I feel some spaciousness and make a wish for all people to be free of the kind of pain I am feeling. So these are my practices of working with severe pain and they have helped me cope. They may not work for everyone, and I would love to hear about others’ practices of working with severe pain.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The one thing I like about pain « Determined To Heal

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