The Importance of Pain
I did not set out to write an article saying that pain is a good thing. Anyone who has a kidney stone is not going to believe me. I also did not want to try to convince anyone to “love your pain.” I intend to give people tools to deal with pain, especially chronic pain. And in the process, I have changed my mind about pain. It turns out, pain is important!
To understand how important pain is, it may be instructive to think about what life would be like without it. There are a few people in the world who never experience pain. They are born with a genetic abnormality that may allow them to feel touch, and pressure, but not pain. They are otherwise normal with normal intelligence and normal physical characteristics. Seems ideal, right? But it is a terrible illness! They do not pull their hand away from a fire and often get burn injuries. They may bite off the tip of their tongue and put things in their eyes. They walk on broken bones. They most often die of an overwhelming infection because they don’t think it’s important – because it doesn’t hurt.
“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
–Westley, The Princess Bride
Otherwise, everyone experiences pain in some way. Pain is whatever we find noxious, unpleasant, harmful, injurious, or that we want to avoid. However, the experience of pain is not consistent. Each person has a different “pain threshold” where it becomes intolerable. There are those who experience physical pain but say, “Sure it hurts, but I don’t care.” Thus, pain is both a stimulus, and a response to that stimulus.
I first noticed this when my children were young. One of my sons would come running to me with the littlest pain or injury like the world was coming to an end. His little sister, on the other hand, would be running and fall and get road rash on her hands and knees, and just get up bleeding and keep running. When she was two years old, she got a broken arm, and we didn’t find out for two days (with two doctors in the house!) because she didn’t complain until I picked her up by her broken arm.
No pain, no gain!
We live in a generation today that feels pain. But rather than accepting it and finding the cause, we immediately seek relief. That’s the reason many are on opiate drugs, alcohol, or marijuana. Others watch television and live in a make-believe world to escape pain. But as much as we try to avoid it, we make things worse. We need pain to tell us there is an infection, or a sickness, or something that must be resolved.
“Pain is certain, suffering is optional”
People attribute the above quote to many others, including the Buddha. It has expressed an important truth about pain for centuries. We all experience pain just because we live. One of my patients with chronic pain says, “It lets me know I’m alive.”
Thus, pain really has two issues:
- The experience of pain
- The reaction to pain
Once these are separated, we can begin to have a choice. Rather than react automatically to pain, we can choose not to react at all.
Those people who are genetically pain-free may experience a feeling. They can feel the stimulus, but it has no meaning and is not noxious to them. In other words, they do not know when something is damaging their skin, such as a fire. They have a stimulus, it feels warm, but no reaction to pull away or avoid it. This underlies the essential aspect of pain: The stimulus is less important than the reaction.
One young man in college with misophonia, a condition that causes people to feel pain, or anger, with certain sounds, had to take tests in a testing center with lots of other students. The problem was that many of the students were eating, chewing gum, popping gum, or making smacking noises with their mouths. This was his trigger, and he was unable to concentrate on his own test. He would describe it as trying to solve a complex math problem while your feet are being dipped in boiling oil! He tried “noise cancelling” headphones, and all kinds of ear plugs, but finally he needed a note from a doctor to have a private room where he could take tests. He’s the only one in the college who could feel pain from someone across the room chewing gum. It wasn’t the stimulus of chewing gum, but rather the reaction created in his brain, that was painful.
This young man has a choice on how he can respond to pain. He noted that when he had a girlfriend, she could “chomp” on gum, or her food, and it didn’t bother him at all. At that point, he recognized the space between the pain and the suffering. He could feel the pain, but there was no suffering. Because he was in love with her, she could hurt him all she wanted, but he did not suffer.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Physical pain is the most obvious pain we see. People love to post and watch videos online of people falling, landing, getting hit, or otherwise experiencing pain. We get to laugh about the pain of others, or even our own – after the fact, like when a bunch of guys get together to show off their scars.
Emotional pain is not so visible. Just as everyone experiences different levels of reaction to physical pain, emotional loss or damage can be devastating irrespective of the stimulus. Some people criticized Queen Elizabeth II because she didn’t cry at her husband’s funeral, Prince Philip, after 72 years of marriage. There may be no external signs of emotional pain. The British are known for keeping “a stiff upper lip.”
Pain is Your Worst Enemy
The very essence of pain is something to avoid. Defining the experience of pain requires it to be something we hate. Thus, pain can create avoidance behavior. This may start when we are little and get punished for doing something wrong – a spanking or some other “corporal” punishment. My dad would say, “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’s going to hurt you!” but I didn’t believe it. I think it hurt me more. And it was an incentive to avoid pain that gave me a good reason not to throw baseballs in the house anymore!
Thus, pain can create fear, or avoidance behavior. Life can revolve around preventing pain, which can be a big problem. The fear we feel may prevent us from living, causing us to avoid pain, instead of living life. Those who are afraid of pain do not go out of their way to love others. Fear is the opposite of love, as the apostle John tells us:
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”
(1 John 4:18)
How are love and fear opposed?
|Seeks happiness||Avoids pain|
|Rewards efforts||Avoids punishment|
|Lives life||Avoids death|
|Learns and grows from stress||Tries to stop the stress|
|Gives to others||Needs to take from others|
|Has courage||Seeks protection or safety|
|Sacrifices things||Holds on to everything|
|Includes others||Causes selfish desires|
|Accepts weaknesses||Intolerant of others’ problems|
|Patient||Irritable, easily annoyed|
|Rejoices with the blessings of others||Envies others’ good fortune|
|Believes life is plentiful, abundant||Believes there’s not enough|
|Sees growth as improvement||Sees growth as hard|
Denial of pain is another primary cause of fear. In medicine we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is a reaction to a painful event that becomes suppressed. The person who has had a trauma, either emotional or physical, does not want to remember the pain so they deny the trauma exists, causing them to live in fear of repeating such pain, and often bringing on more pain.
When pain brings fear is it your worst enemy because it is the opposite of life and love. I have seen many people who come to see the doctor trying to avoid pain. The irony is that most often, avoiding pain causes more pain. Many of my colleagues who are pain doctors have found that “pain relief” often does more harm than good by preventing people from dealing with the underlying cause of their pain.
For example, there are many with back pain who suffer for years because they are trying to avoid emotional pain. Dr. John Sarno, MD has written many books on how people suffer physical pain because they are trying to block-out emotional pain. Another example would be avoiding going to the doctor to find the cause of an illness, allowing the illness to progress. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, skin rashes, and all sorts of infections are often easier to treat if taken care of early. As the old couplet goes:
A stitch in time saves nine.
Thus, pain can cause people to live in fear, instead of love. This makes pain your worst enemy.
Pain is Your Best Friend
On the other hand, those who acknowledge pain, and accept it as an important part of life exhibit courage and can grow in love.
Feel the BURN!
All the greatest philosophers and teachers throughout the history of civilized man have dealt with the problem of pain. You have a choice to avoid or face pain. We need pain. People with diabetes may get neuropathy and loose the feeling in their feet. Without the feeling of pain, they get infections that they are not aware of. They may see swelling and redness, but think, “If it was bad, it would hurt.” Since it doesn’t hurt, they let it go until it gets into the bone and it’s too late – an amputation becomes necessary. The rest of us have pain nerves to say, “Hey! Look here! There’s something wrong!” And we stop walking on it, soak it, go to the doctor, take antibiotics, and do whatever it takes to remove the pain – and the infection. When you can’t feel pain, you get hurt easily, even getting permanent injuries. Thus, pain is essential to human existence. Pain is normal. Everyone experiences pain.
“To hurt is as human as to breathe.” – J.K. Rowling
It’s not the pain that is the problem, but rather the reaction to the pain. The reaction is most often a choice:
- I can feel pain, and move forward despite pain, exhibiting courage, or I can withdraw and seek comfort and safety.
- I can choose to find the cause of my pain, or to wallow in it and become bitter and angry.
While in the immediate sense it may be wise to be safe, on the grand scale of life it causes withdrawal and decline.
Dr. Victor Frankl was in a Nazi prison camp and had everything taken from him, even his humanity, as described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He found the only thing that could not be taken was his freedom to choose his response to pain. He chose to love even the guards who hurt him.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
You can choose to look at the pain and acknowledge it, rather than try to relieve it or run away from it. Then, you can begin to ask why. Pain is telling you something. You can learn from pain. You can grow by finding out why you have pain. If you embrace pain with the anticipation of learning and growing from it, the pain will not be as bad, and it won’t last as long. We may not be able to be pain-free, but we still have a choice on how to respond, as immortalized in the Serenity Prayer.
Lord give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.