The science of pain is clear that physical pain and emotional pain activate similar regions in the brain. What this means is that to your body, pain is pain. It’s clearly in the body that we feel physical pain, and it’s also in the body that we feel emotional pain. As you address the pain from both a physical and emotional standpoint, you address the pain more effectively.
“Pain, of course, is always both a physical and an emotional experience.”
—Alan Fogel, Body Sense
Pain is Physical, Sensational, and Emotional
We physically experience emotions. Sensations occur in the body as we experience emotions. We experience different sensations for different emotions. When we experience a break-up, for example, we say that our heart breaks or aches because we have sensations that convey the pain our body experiences. Accompanying these sensations, we also have emotions like grief or sadness that are painful to feel.
We also experience emotional reactions in reaction to sensations of physical pain. For instance, when I stub my toe, I feel physical pain immediately, and pretty quickly I could start to feel frustrated or angry that it happened and/or fearful about the extent of the injury. This can then lead to a whole series of thoughts about the predicament that can lead to other feelings that generate other sensations in my body. The point is that physical, sensational, and emotional pain are interconnected and difficult to separate out.
When you have pain as part of a chronic problem, you are faced with the double whammy of having the pain and the stress with which our body reacts to that pain.
The Importance of Pain
Without pain, there would be no way to understand how good pleasure feels. Both pain and pleasure are important components of the human experience.
We have very different reactions to pain and pleasure. We typically seek pleasure and try to avoid pain. To your body, pain is a stressor. Avoiding pain is generally a useful strategy, but it has its limitations. We are not always capable of fleeing pain. Even if we are, fleeing does not guarantee an absence of pain. When we actually have to experience pain, we automatically brace against it, and our faces flinch. When you have pain as part of a chronic problem, you are faced with the double whammy of having the pain and the stress with which our body reacts to that pain.
Pain has an important function. It tells us that there is something hurting us, alerting us to danger, potentially saving our lives. Pain doesn’t feel good for good reason: How are we to know to avoid a possible threat without the driving force of something painful? And if we’re to avoid something indefinitely, then that pain better hurt to the point of sealing the experience into our long-term memory so that we always remember to avoid that threat.
We need pleasure to help distract and unwind from pain and stress.
In the absence of danger, it becomes easier to experience pleasure. As we sink into a pleasurable experience, our nervous system settles further and further into a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state. If we didn’t have pleasure, perhaps our bodies would be in a general state of sympathetic activation all the time. We need pleasure to help distract and unwind from pain and stress. That said, chronic pain and stress make it difficult if not impossible for the parasympathetic nervous system to activate its rest and digest state at all.
Pain is a necessary, unavoidable part of living life as a human being. All kinds of normal human experiences bring pain. Loss, death, illness, and are a few common life experiences that we have that bring great pain, physical and emotional. Denial, repression, dissociation, and distraction are some examples of how we can run or hide from these kinds of real-life situations, but doing so ultimately leads to greater suffering.
Necessary vs. Unnecessary Suffering
To feel pain is to endure some degree of suffering, and that is why pain naturally makes us want to avoid it. Paradoxically, while circumventing pain on the one hand alleviates some suffering, on the other hand it generates another form of suffering.
We can say that there are two forms of suffering associated with pain, necessary suffering and unnecessary suffering. Here’s the difference between the two:
Necessary suffering is what happens in the face of the pain in your life that is inevitable and unavoidable. It is a normal, natural part of living. Having a loved one pass away, for example, is a painful life experience that brings necessary suffering. Allowing ourselves to suffer as we consciously acknowledge the loss and grief is a healing transformative process. When dealt with directly, necessary suffering leads to freedom from pain and greater ease in the body.
Unnecessary suffering is any suffering that instead of leading to an alleviation of pain and easing in the body leads to further suffering. Think of unnecessary suffering as something layered on top of pain, making it more difficult for you to contact the pain. For instance, our bodies quite automatically brace physiologically and psychologically as we expect something painful to happen. The tension and resistance of bracing is our body’s attempt to protect us from pain but when it’s appropriate to suffer with pain, unnecessary suffering prevents us from experiencing it. There is no beneficial outcome to unnecessary suffering.
The only way out of pain is through experiencing necessary suffering.
It’s important to know the difference between necessary and unnecessary suffering so that you can attend to your pain with greater awareness and effectiveness. If there is pain, then you know to pay attention to how your body reacts to it and to distinguish between the two forms of suffering. As you identify unnecessary suffering, you can use strategies to unhook from it and to refocus your attention on attending to the suffering that is necessary. The only way out of pain is through necessary suffering. Learning how to do this is often part of healing from a functional medical problem.
Being receptive to suffering in order to feel our pain frees us from having to fear and avoid pain. Cultivating the capacity with which you can meet pain with receptivity is an important part of living a healthy life and builds resilience.