Creating a Healthy Relationship to Chronic Pain
Susan, Certified Massage Therapist Jul 20, 2017
I’ve tried some crazy things for my migraines. I had tried medications, injections, and home remedies like a whole pot of coffee at once. I tried sleep promoting herbs. The pain just bled through anyway, keeping me half awake. Ear plugs helped sometimes, but I still wasn’t functional at my high stress tech job. Ginger and mint did not keep my stomach settled, no aroma therapy lasted more than a few minutes, and peppermint oil just made me smell like gum. I was determined to try anything except prescription painkillers.
Thomas Myers of Anatomy Trains defines pain as “sensation accompanied by the motor response to withdraw. If you’re not trying to get away from it, it’s not pain. It’s just sensation.” What I was doing was running myself ragged trying to get away from pain.
So, why not try just sitting with my pain instead of trying to change my pain? I was not going to try sitting in pain. I was going to be with sensation, like we are hanging out. Oh, hey! It’s you. I haven’t seen you in weeks. What’s new?
And, I was going to be curious. What are you trying to tell me today, and why have I resisted listening? That kind of hanging out. I was not going to fight; I was going to listen see what happened.
At the time I tried this wacky experiment, I was a teaching intern in the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society. I knew from studying research on mindfulness that I was unlikely to change my pain at all. Mindfulness is a practice, not a one size fits all solution. It opens up new space for solutions to arrive. The only thing I wanted was to change how I felt about the sensations I was experiencing. Could I learn to get along in life with pain? Even a little bit?
What I learned is that pain just is.
Pain is a message, not an agenda. It is the firing and interpretation of electrical signals, not a covert agent bent on destroying my happiness and independence. Pain doesn’t care about my plans to clean house, my enjoyment of a wedding, or my ability to focus my eyes. Pain is not conspiring against me. Pain is, in fact, on my side, doing its level best to work in my favor.
As a massage therapist working with people with injuries and chronic pain, I have seen how talking about a brilliant grandchild can ease the experience of pain during a scar tissue massage. I watch carpal tunnel nerves calm down when my client and I find a way to discuss the sensation without the vocabulary of pain. I know that a bad day at work or anticipating a difficult meeting can make the sensations of a pinched nerve or tight shoulders flare up. I also now understand that being what author Elliott Dacher calls a mirror by reflecting my experience without adding to it with judgment, fear, anger, anxiety, or resentment makes any sensation much more tolerable. Treating the muscle or tendon alone will only get us so far. We also need to take a look at how we feel about how the pain is impacting our lives.
I feel lucky to have found work where I can continue to engage with the nervous system at a personal level. I can do massage through a migraine, and I never could have done that working with executives or facilitating training. I often even feel better after a day of work.
Come see me soon. You may be helping me just as much as I am helping you.