Hurts so good?

How a fixation on pain avoidance may have eroded our coping skills—and what we can do about it.

Here in the USA, we have an unalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness.” Our founding fathers said so. But maybe we’ve been pursuing happiness just a little too much.

Maybe we conflate happiness with avoidance of pain, when actually the two can co-exist.

Maybe that’s why some of us overeat, oversleep, overspend and self-medicate—to quash discomfort of any kind.

But sometimes it’s healthy, even vital, to experience—and gently work through—our pain. When we’re too quick to mask pain, we may miss important symptoms of injury, disease or personal problems—while they can still be addressed effectively.

Even the medical profession—presumably with the best of intentions!—has become complicit in the masking of pain. In fact, in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control declared that too many painkiller prescriptions have been a cause of the current U.S. opioid epidemic. Read more about that in this NPR report.

But doctors used to believe that pain was not only important as a clue to deeper problems, but that it might also have psychological benefits. In recent years, this idea has fallen into disfavor as pain medication became more available. And by largely eradicating pain, we have lost opportunities to learn from it, and to strengthen ourselves mentally and physically.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger? Okay, that’s a cliché, and sometimes a dangerous one. But it holds a kernel of truth. Sometimes “toughing out” physical discomfort can be a healthier option than medicating. For instance, some over-the-counter medications (like decongestants, headache remedies and sleeping pills) can have a rebound effect, making matters worse rather than better.

In the same way, mind-altering substances and other ways of avoiding our problems can make those problems more complicated.

But when we gently work through pain instead of avoiding it, our problem-solving skills improve—and we can often actually reduce the pain we feel in the moment.

Scary stories we tell ourselves. Because we avoid pain, it’s mostly unfamiliar to us—and it’s human nature to fear the unfamiliar. So we tend to “catastrophize” pain by imagining the worst possible outcome. Gas pains suggest appendicitis; a cranky boss means layoffs.

And with every catastrophe we imagine, our bodies respond with tighter muscles and other stress effects, increasing physical pain.

Face your pain in healthy ways. The next time you feel non-severe pain coming on, wait a few minutes before running for the NSAIDS. Instead, sit up or lie down, close your eyes, breathe regularly, and observe the physical sensation for a moment without fear or judgment.

Describe the pain to yourself in small, simple words like “hot,” “tight,” or “tingly.” If you find yourself imagining what the pain might mean, gently steer your thoughts back to what you feel, rather than what you imagine. Or focus on your posture and your breath.

After about five minutes, don’t be surprised if your pain is smaller, or even gone. If not, then consider whether or not you need a pain reliever

By the same token, if you find yourself hurt (or angry or worried) by an event, repeat the process described above. Observe your feelings without fearing them or imagining what might come next. Hold off on drinking, smoking or taking a pill for a few minutes.

If the pain or feeling recurs, but is bearable, repeat the process above or try this exercise. If you feel anxiety or fear, this column from last year has some coping exercises. And consider starting some simple, daily mindfulness steps for self-care.

It’s easier than you might think to reduce pain and other bad feelings, simply by calmly accepting and observing them. Once you learn this technique, you’re likely to find yourself with vastly improved coping skills. You’ll be a cooler, calmer, leas reactive and more effective you, both at work and at home.

Let me know how things go!