The Process of Healing
Pain manifests in numerous forms and textures, sporadic, chronic, intense, and mild. It affects us both physically and emotionally and sometimes both at once. As humans, we can’t avoid pain because it’s an unavoidable fact of life. Instead of spending a significant amount of time and energy throughout our lives trying to avoid it, we could learn to stop trying to resist it.
Sometimes, at the end of a long day or week, I feel more than exhausted. I feel wounded. When I see too many people in the course of a day or week who are experiencing too much pain, I recognize I’m holding too much of other people’s pain and need to heal myself. Cognitively, I realize it’s not technically my pain, but in holding the space for others, I can get emotionally wounded.
Life can be difficult, to say the least, and we accumulate everything from micro to major harms or injuries throughout our lifetimes. Because of that, whether physical or emotional, most of us have some areas in need of healing. Whatever pain or discomfort we may experience, mindfulness practices can be beneficial through increased awareness of what we are actually experiencing versus the judgment of what is occurring.
Non-judgment is a key component of mindfulness and a major contributor towards healing. Through mindful awareness, we can shift out of many of our discomforts and allow our minds and bodies to heal. I’m certainly not saying that professional treatment should not be sought for any type of pain or illness but learning to meet uncomfortable feelings and sensations with less resistance and without judgment can support any treatments we might seek.
Most of our emotional pain comes from our own minds, as we ruminate and worry and fret. We judge ourselves and we judge others, making up distressing stories that cause us stress and upset. And as our emotional discomfort increases, we want to eradicate it because we judge it as a bad experience. We may try lashing out at others, numbing through unhealthy activities or distracting ourselves in an attempt to ignore the pain, but all of those efforts tend to either make the situation worse or drag it out longer. When we remove judgment from the scenario, the emotional pain typically lessens and we’re able to heal.
Emotions are contagious, so we can also catch feelings of sadness, anger and worry, like me when I have too many clients in a day. Self-awareness allows me to see when this is occurring so that I can take steps to heal myself. The foundation of this healing is self-love through kindness. When we are in emotional pain, we are out of balance, so in order to heal, we simply need to restore balance.
We first need to identify what’s out of balance within us. Has work taken over all waking hours? Has the self-care routine fallen to the wayside? We can start healing by connecting to our breath, feeling the rhythm of it, the constancy of it. As we focus on our breath, we connect to the present moment. I ask myself at this point, am I safe in this moment? Or, am I okay right now? The answer is yes. Now I am connected to my entire system which has its own intelligence and is self-healing. I place my hand over my heart and breathe in self-compassion, honoring myself for experiencing the pain and being resilient enough to allow it to be. I know it will pass. With this knowledge, I can explore the pain if I choose to, looking at it with curiosity instead of judgment.
Why am I feeling this emotion? How do I feel about myself while experiencing this emotion? Where do I feel this emotion in my body? Is there any action I need to consider about the event that I responded to with this emotion? By staying curious and nonjudgmental, I am free to ask questions and can also return to focusing on my breath if any of my questions make me uncomfortable. It’s a gentle, loving process. It is accepting that I am uncomfortable and instead of resisting it, I can lean into it as my system processes it.
There is nothing wrong with me just because I am uncomfortable. The discomfort is either from my own mind or based on an external event, but I can stay focused on the present moment while observing my thoughts and emotions. Normally when we experience discomfort, we blame ourselves or others, and these judgments only increase our pain. Have you ever asked yourself, “What’s wrong with me?” when you’re very upset about something or with someone else? That’s a judgment that you’re broken in some way and need to be fixed. We don’t need to be fixed. We simply need to stay in the present, which stops the spiral of rumination about the past or worry about the future. The past is done and cannot be changed. The future is a mystery to all of us and we can’t possibly know what will happen.
Consider what we do when we see someone we care about in distress. We soothe them, we encourage them, we reassure them. Our ultimate goal is to help them feel better. We can do the same thing for ourselves. Holding a hand over the heart, gently patting the chest, even hugging ourselves all send signals to the brain to release hormones that feel comforting. Focusing on the present, practicing self-compassion and observing our discomfort with curiosity instead of judgment supports us in healing the emotional wounds we’re experiencing. If you’ve experienced an emotional trauma, I would suggest that you seek professional support, but you can still use these practices to remain calmer and to increase self-compassion.
Just as with an emotional wound, when we experience the physical sensation of pain, we typically judge it as bad or awful and set out to immediately get rid of it. Research shows however that when we become more aware of our sensations without the judgment, the perception of physical pain decreases.
Whether due to an injury, illness or a chronic condition, pain is most definitely an uncomfortable sensation. When pain strikes, it takes less than a millisecond for our brain to register the pain and for our mind to begin resisting it. We may judge our bodies as faulty. We may feel that something is being done to us that we don’t deserve. We fight against the sensations we’re feeling.
We can reconsider pain as a message from the body instead of a faulty body breaking down. What is the pain trying to tell us? Feeling pain doesn’t mean the body is failing but exactly the opposite. It’s working perfectly, alerting us to the fact that something needs to be addressed. Research shows that mindfulness meditation has been shown to be helpful with pain. As we resist the pain, we tend to tighten or clench around the painful area, which only increases pain. That’s why so many women take breathing lessons before going into labor.
If we get settled into ourselves as I just described for emotional pain, focusing on our breathing, pausing and observing, we can change our experience with pain. Once we’re connected to the present moment, we can explore the pain with curiosity. In as much detail as possible, consider what the pain feels like. Is it sharp, throbbing, dull, sporadic, constant? The more we zero in on the details, we begin to notice that pain isn’t just one sensation. There are multiple sensations occurring and some hurt less than others. Some don’t hurt at all. It could be tingling or warmth for example surrounding the core of the pain. I have regular pain caused by inflammation in my hips, knees and shoulders, so I practice this exercise fairly frequently. I can tell you that it’s not uncommon to start berating ourselves for the pain we’re in. If only I had paid attention when it was simply a little uncomfortable… but sometimes instead of listening to my body and taking a break or slowing down, I think I can ignore it for a little longer and then am upset with myself for the price I have to pay.
That’s judgment. I am very aware of what’s happening in my body and know that being sedentary is the worst thing I can do for it – that’s when I become inflamed. But my work requires that I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer, a microphone and a video camera, so instead of beating myself up for doing my job, I return to self-compassion.
Many people have been conditioned to ignore their bodies. We ignore or push through when we feel an ache or a twinge or a pain. That minor toothache can wait a few days because a) who wants to go to the dentist and b) there’s not enough time right now anyway. That sore back is irritating, but as long as we don’t lift anything heavy, we can put off dealing with it. Frequent headaches? Frequent aspirin or ibuprofen to get through. Lots of us do something similar until the pain becomes significant enough to prevent us from pushing through and then we’re stuck in a state of suffering.
The best time to connect with your body is not when you’re in excruciating pain. It’s a mindful practice that takes time but that eventually becomes a habit.
Try relaxing with a body scan practice. A body scan allows us to identify what we’re feeling and where we’re feeling it in a non-judgmental way, focusing on one part of the body at a time. I start with my feet and work my way up, but you can explore your body in whatever way is most comfortable for you. It's simply a process of focusing on the part and observing every detail that you can discover. Is my foot warm, cold, tingly, painful, or any other sensation? Can I feel where it connects to the floor? Is there a sensation of a sock or shoe on it? Once I’m done with my foot, I move to the ankle, then the shin, knee, thigh and I just keep going all the way up to the top of my head.
As you can imagine, this is not a 3-minute practice, so I don’t do it every day, but I try to do it once a week for about 20 minutes per scan. The process is very relaxing, so I don’t do it at bedtime because I fall asleep before I finish, every single time. But beyond relaxation, practicing the body scan familiarizes you with your body in a way that we just don’t normally do. How much time have you ever spent thinking about your ankle? Probably none unless it’s in pain. By getting to really know all of your body parts, you enhance your ability to observe them non-judgmentally when you do experience pain. The body scan cultivates a caring and acceptance toward your body and you’ll become more attuned to when something needs to be paid attention to. You’ll also discover areas where you’re holding tension that you might not have noticed otherwise.
We can consider letting go of the expectation that pain will pass when and how we want it to. My knee may be screaming at me in the middle of a walk, but my frustration that it won’t wait until I get home or won’t stop in a few seconds is pretty futile. It does what it needs to do. That pain is probably caused by inflammation which is my body’s way of protecting the joint itself, so accepting the pain for what it is and recognizing that it is serving a purpose helps me avoid resistance and judgment.
It may seem counterintuitive but keep active if you’re able. I may have to shorten my walk, but a short walk is better than no walk. On days where my hips or knees just do not cooperate, I can consider working out my arms or focus on stretching. And on really bad days where my body tells me physical activity is just plain out of the question, I switch to something enjoyable, like reading or watching a favorite show, or something educational so that I’m working out my brain muscle. I think it’s important to try to do something other than crawl under the covers because I then risk increasing emotional pain. The physical pain’s quite enough on those days, so no need to add any other pain. If you’re really struggling though, pause, get centered and then ask yourself, “what do I need most in this moment?” It may be bed or it may be to call a doctor or it may be to sit outside in the sun. The key is to listen to yourself and respond.
We’re better able to accept and process our pain if we already have a regular self-care routine. Eating a healthy diet, at least most of the time, getting plenty of sleep so our immune system is in top form, getting daily movement, and maintaining a network of family or friends all contribute to calmness and clarity even when pain erupts. When in pain, it’s tempting to crack open the Ben and Jerry’s and plop on the couch, but that’s probably not what would best serve your system or the pain, so try to stick with your self-care routine, even when pain feels disruptive.
Finally, don’t forget to breathe. That tensing up I mentioned earlier includes the breath. We frequently hold our breath when hit with a sharp pain for example, so remember to take deep, slow breaths if you’re hurting. Remember to make the outbreath about twice as long as the inbreath to turn on the relaxation response which will further support you in dealing with the pain at hand.
Buddha said, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” I’m not sure we can avoid all suffering but we can certainly practice mindfulness to minimize it. We can start by understanding that healing means to make sound or return to health and we can do that by restoring balance to mind and body through curiosity, non-judgment and acceptance. Are you ready to explore your pain through a mindful perspective?