The Surprising Purpose of Pain – A Curious Ramble

What is pain?

All pain is brain pain…

By that, I mean that all pain experienced by a person is measurable inside their brain. Yes, even emotional pain can be measured in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. All pain resides in the body-mind complex and all pain is real. 

All pain is real…

I repeat this, because I want to resist the conditioning within many of us, within many human cultures, that wants to dismiss our pain as imaginary or insignificant – to ignore, diminish, or avoid it – especially when it comes to psychological pain. 

According to our brains, it doesn’t matter if pain is physical or emotional in origin. Emotional pain can cause physical manifestations of pain and visa versa. So the origin or manifestation of our pain is ultimately irrelevant. If it’s pain, we experience it as pain and our experience of it is entirely valid. Pain is pain and that pain is real.

However, pain is hugely subjective…

Each individual has a capacity to tolerate pain based upon a blend multiple factors including genetics, personality, and their level of access to social support. Because of this, there’s no simple way to approach pain and there is no simple pain, be it physical, emotional, or existential.

Like so many things, pain lives on a spectrum, one that ranges from abject suffering to slight irritation and everything in-between. Pain is situational, personal, subjective, collective, generational, chronic, acute, predictable, unpredictable – all of these things at various times in various situations. Pain is complicated.

But one simple thing about pain is that it is inevitable. Being alive in the material realm means that each and every one of us will experience pain in one form or another, multiple times over the course of our lives. No matter what some people say, there is no way to avoid pain.

And there is a reason for that…

Pain has a purpose. 

It is one of our many, what I like to call, Inner Wise Messengers – often challenging parts of ourselves that guide us towards wellbeing, safety, and vitality. As much as we may not enjoy experiencing pain (though some do in certain contexts), pain is important. It is an ally of our body-minds and it colors our embodied experience in deeply significant ways. 

Pain’s purpose is to alert us when something is strained, injured, threatened, out of balance, dangerous, misplaced, neglected, lost, and/or incomplete. Pain draws attention to the areas of our bodies, minds, hearts, and lives that need to be soothed and healed.

Many of us have been conditioned to avoid feeling and experiencing pain by numbing, distracting, denying and reaching for things that give us only temporary relief. We try over and over again, to ignore pain when it shows up in our bodies, emotions, and minds. Unfortunately, there is no “outrunning” pain. When we ignore pain, it only gets bigger and louder, persisting in getting our attention and eventually causing us MORE harm in the long-run.

Pain needs to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. Its wise healing message must be answered and fulfilled so that it can realize its purpose. Only when this happens, will pain finally ease up or go away entirely.

But what about chronic pain? That kind of pain doesn’t just go away…

When pain shows up, we want it to go away so we can feel better, but it doesn’t always subside even if we acknowledge and address it in “all the right ways”. Why is this?

Chronic pain is strange. Strange because sometimes it presents as idiopathic (without clear cause) or when the initial cause – say a physical injury – has resolved, but the pain remains, there isn’t always a clear correlation with observed pathology. 

For example, most people by the time they reach their 50s show spinal degeneration on MRIs, however, the majority of them do not experience chronic pain when it seems that they should. That’s because…

All pain is brain pain. 

Chronic pain occurs due to neural pathways that have become stuck on a repeating loop to remain sensitized to certain stimuli which the body then interprets as pain. In other words, the experience of chronic pain is not necessarily the original cause of that pain, but instead a neurological phenomena or a disease state of its very own.

These neural pathways are a part of the body’s stress response system. When a stressful event occurs, be it physical injury or emotional upset, our natural stress response system is activated. In most cases, our nervous system goes through a recovery process after these events which allows us to return to a certain level of equilibrium or homeostasis. However, sometimes that process is not able to complete and the nervous system then begins to repeat the pattern formed in response to the stressful event until something comes along to interrupt it and allow for a new pathway to be formed. 

This happens with both physical and mental-emotional pain and explains why some people experience chronic pain.

There is a strong correlation between chronic pain and experiences of trauma along with other accompanying stress-related symptoms having occurred either in the past or present. A person’s chances of developing chronic pain may be increased with a history of these types of events. Personality type may also be a factor with people-pleasing and perfectionistic personality types showing an increased propensity for experiencing pain in general. 

So, while some people are more prone to experience chronic pain, it’s not inevitable and it’s not necessarily something that with last forever – which is good news! Given the correct treatment, chronic pain (whether emotional or physical) can eventually subside.

Unfortunately, without effective interventions, sometimes chronic pain becomes not just pain, but suffering…

Suffering is pain at its most persistent, unrelenting, and unforgiving. It is pain that has continued far beyond its purpose as a messenger of healing, instead becoming a messenger of injustice, deep generational, collective, or personal trauma, and/or a situation beyond our control.

When pain becomes suffering, it is not because we haven’t tried everything in our power to relieve our pain, but because we are limited in our power to change our circumstances. Suffering is a situation of real or perceived lack of tangible resources and for this reason, suffering is a matter of justice since access to resources is essential to everybody. While we all must experience pain from time to time, no one should have to needlessly suffer. We all deserve access to the tools, information, and safety that delivers us from the pain in our lives.

Chronic physical pain, social injustice, extreme poverty, torture, war, imprisonment, environmental disasters, and slavery are all examples of experiences that can cause abject, unjust, and unnecessary suffering. It is in these situations people need acts of justice from a supportive community to overcome their suffering; it cannot be done alone.

It cannot be done alone…

Truth be told, humans can rarely relieve pain completely on their own. While it is absolutely required to relieve suffering with the aid and intervention of a healthy and safe community, all other forms of pain need to be addressed within a supportive environment as well. 

We don’t do well in isolation and the myth of hyper-individuality helps no one in times of pain. Whether we find hope and relief in the helping hand of another person, a therapy animal, or a beautiful sunset, we need to answer the call of pain together.

Whether fleeting or chronic, physical or mental-emotional, community support grows our capacity to live with pain. It provides us with the resources and tools to effectively address our pain so that instead of getting stuck there, we may flow into life’s next sensational experience, whatever it may be. 

In conclusion…

We may not enjoy pain, but the more we accept and embrace its role and purpose in our lives, the better able we are to journey in and out of it with a sense of empowered grace. When we deny and ignore pain it doesn’t go away, because it must fulfill its purpose to deliver its wise message about healing, imbalance, or too much constriction. The willingness to confront our pain head on is the most important step to building a healthy relationship with pain, but we don’t have to do it alone. When we meet life’s discontents together, we access greater hope, justice, and resilience, which is ultimately what pain wants for us.

Want some tips on growing your capacity for pain? Check out this post – 12 Ways to Grow Your Capacity for Pain

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