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Growth. There, I answered the question. You’re welcome. Jk, jk. I have more to say.
The point of pain, from an evolutionary and biological perspective, is to alert us to threat. Imagine if you were part of a hunter-gatherer tribe, and you were bitten by a snake, or fell and broke your leg. The ensuing pain is the body’s way of saying, “You need to rest and heal, (and perhaps receive some other intervention). For the sake of your long-term survival, you cannot go on like this. If you try to anyway, I’ll communicate the seriousness of this by way of more intense pain sensations.”
The alert signal comes through a tiny almond-shaped mass of gray matter, located in each hemisphere of the brain, just above the brainstem. What happens in the case of post-traumatic stress symptoms, or chronic pain, is that the alarm system that is the amygdala becomes faulty, alerting the body to pain when there’s no actual threat. This is why chronic pain symptoms can be so baffling: we keep looking to resolve the issue in the body, when the answer in fact lies in the brain (which, by the way, is also part of the body!). The brain, in this case, is not to be confused with “the mind”. More on that in a future post.
There are imaging studies that show that people whose spines present symmetrically, fitting what we might conceive of as an ideal anatomical model, can be in pain, while people with pronounced scoliosis or other deviations can be pain-free.* This also explains why surgeries aimed at relieving back or knee pain, for example, have a relatively low success rate—there’s nothing “wrong” with the structure, it’s just that the amygdala needs to be settled, reassured that there’s no threat. By analogy: you don’t need to rewire the smoke detector, it’s just beeping because it needs a new battery. (Consider exploring the Curable universe for tips and techniques to soothe the amygdala.)
So this might raise the question: why did the amygdala evolve to sometimes be faulty in this way? In that same hunter-gatherer image, it would be quite counter-productive (read: potentially life-threatening) to believe that I’m always under threat—when I’m actually not—by way of getting these signals all the time. “What was that!? Was that a lion? Oh, phew, it was just the breeze. What was that!?” and on, and on…
Living in a state of much-higher-than-necessary (or sometimes even near-constant) activation in response to phantom threats increases stress (cortisol levels in the blood), which increases the likelihood of heart-related issues. It also means that when the lion is there, I may be too fatigued from this cycle to actually respond appropriately.
Let’s adapt this to a modern-day example. If I incur some injury that generally has a routine recovery trajectory of 3-6 months, I might start to feel fearful around some ancillary consequences. If, like 78% of Americans, I live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the injury prevents me from working, I might develop fear around being able to provide food and shelter for myself.
Further, I may start to feel hopeless if I am limited in my ability to take care of myself, or perhaps my dependents. Or I may start to feel despair around finding and/or being a viable and supportive mate (partner). These are two of many ways that layers of stress can start to pile on. It becomes easy to get lost in a downward spiral of overwhelm that actually engages the amygdala, habituating it to be on constant alert, reinforcing the sense of threat, and in turn, the signals of pain. It’s like our body is generating its own inescapable attack. Amygdala says, “Run! You’ve got to get out of this situation!” and we’re stuck, obviously unable to run away from ourselves.
…though often, not for lack of trying. It’s easy to see how this pattern would lead to an intense seeking of relief—escape from one’s experience—that explains all-too-well the epidemic of addictions, ranging from the more subtle and culturally accepted (like binge-eating or binge-watching) to the more gross, like opioid abuse. In my personal experience, my desire to escape had become so deeply embedded that I didn’t believe what was happening to me was my real life. (Notice the disempowering, victim-like language here: “…it was happening to me.”) This became most pronounced in a phone conversation with a teacher and friend. I said, “I’ve got to heal this thing so I can get back to my life,” to which he replied: “Dude, this is your life.”
In that moment it was as if the silhouette of my imagined trajectory reconciled with my physical being in space and time. This gave greater depth of understanding to another impactful teaching, from a different teacher and mentor, who said, “What you’re going through is an initiatory process. Such a process always comes through the body.” I felt relief in hearing this, because it simply helped me relax open my mind from it’s narrowed state of despair, but I also felt confused: “Initiation into what?” And still, “When will it be over!?”
In my case, it’s not over. I still experience physical symptoms and their associated emotional responses (usually frustration and sadness). But I see that it all leads somewhere, and that’s in large part because of what I’ve made it mean. If I tell myself, “This sucks and it will always suck,” that’s likely to become my reality. My mind continuously projects that onto the world, again narrowing itself into limited vision of other possibilities, and then recognizing and resonating with affirmations of that reality. If instead I tell myself, “My subconscious (or, if you want to get really woo-woo, my “soul contract”) has brought me this experience to teach me something, to help me grow in some way,” then I can become curious. “What is it here to teach me?”
I believe there are some learnings that are almost universal to the healing process. Here’s a short list:
- Patience – Almost undoubtedly, we would like for our healing process to simply be over. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, nobody says, “I’d like to scale the narrow traverses of chronic pain mountain!” and so, it’s disruptive to whatever our imagined trajectory was.
- This is a different kind of impatience than the acute kind one experiences waiting in traffic or waiting in line. This is the long-term, low-grade, sometimes imperceptible-to-oneself variety. Learning this skill of being in the process can bear tremendous fruit across many applications elsewhere in one’s life.
- Self-compassion – This one requires little explanation, but can be one of the most difficult to generate or come into contact with. It’s so easy to blame ourselves for whatever challenges we’re facing. One tactic to help generate compassion within is to project it onto another.
- For example, imagine a small child or a beloved animal, perhaps one that you know. Visualize and feel their innocence and vulnerability. If they were suffering in the ways that you were, how would you feel toward them? Take it a step further, and imagine how you would comfort them. Can you extend that same form of consolation to yourself?
- Tenderness/gentleness – In a society where we are bred to mold ourselves into machines that churn out productivity, where the masculine is toxically dominant (read: aggressive), it might be worthwhile to explore if our pain is asking us to learn to be softer with ourselves—toward our bodies, and toward our psyches.
At some point in my journey, it occurred to me, “Maybe this process is preparing me for parenthood.” If I can learn to tolerate the intense discomfort and frustration of this stimulus, and respond to it in kind with gentleness, tolerance, acceptance, and integration, it will help me to be a better parent, perhaps even to break certain epigenetic chains.
Definitively, part of my unraveling and initiation has been into that of becoming a healing practitioner. Actually I realized that long ago, and at the time even had a sentiment of, “Ok Universe, message received. I’m on track so you can ease up on the pain now!” Of course this attempt to wave a magic wand was futile, and I’m so grateful for that, because it has propelled me into greater and greater depths of curiosity, training, and meaning-making. To bring it full circle, it has propelled me into growth.
It’s surely possible that I could have found growth in some other way, but it’s also possible that I could have become inert without the friction and challenge of adversity to push off of.
From the challenges you’ve faced, what ways have you grown? This is the kind of thing I love to explore in sessions with my clients. If that’s something that interests you, don’t hesitate to reach out.
*I hesitate to use language like “ideal anatomical vs. deviations” or “normal vs. abnormal”, because I believe and like to affirm that, on the cosmic level, all phenomena arising in this universe, including differently-shaped spines, are by definition, “normal”—it all belongs. I know that for the sake of medical research and communication though, using language like this is useful—and I try to hold both of those perspectives.