Imagine you are a kid again. It is a beautiful Spring afternoon, the sun is shining, a light breeze caresses your face. Overhead, white, fluffy clouds drift through the sky. You are lying on your back on a grassy hill, looking up, just watching the clouds.
Watching the clouds drift into and apart from one another, watching the textures, the denseness, the shapes that constantly morph and change.
And you, lying there, are filled with a sense of stillness. And peace. And wholeness.
Now, see if you can hold that sense of wholeness, stillness and peace as we make a shift to a more challenging topic.
How pain interferes with our sense of calm.
In a recent session, a client was describing excruciating knee pain. She recounted, frustration and fear in her voice, all the different parts of her leg that were in pain.
The muscles pulling, the pressure and pain in the back of her knee, the needle-like stabbing, the unexpected jabs and the sensations of weakness.
She spoke about her love of being active and her fear that she wouldn’t be able to ride her bike again. Her voice filled with anguish, she asked,
“I can feel the pain; I know it’s hurting. Now what? What do I do now?”
Oh, how painful! She knew ignoring the pain or pushing through it wasn’t helpful. She really wanted to practice listening to the pain and treating her knee with kindness and compassion. But, she didn’t know how.
Being in pain can be totally overwhelming.
My client, in the moment she asked “Now what?” was overwhelmed.
It wasn’t just the physical pain that was overwhelming her. It was the emotional distress as well. The agony of not knowing what was going on with her knee, the fear of being unable to do what she loved, the worry that her knee was always going to hurt…
The physical pain combined with the emotional distress and Wham! Just like that, overwhelm occurred.
Imagine a hysterical mother trying to care for her wounded child. If the mother is going to be able to provide effective care, she must first master her hysteria. Once she is calm, then she will be able to evaluate the situation and take the necessary steps to help her child.
If we want to effectively attend to our physical pain, our emotional reactions, like that of the hysterical mother, need to be met first as well. How?
Meeting emotions first:
There are many calming methods out there. One of the best ways I know to help me meet the emotions I’m feeling is to ask myself ‘what if’ questions.
They might look something like this:
What if it was ok for me to be afraid right now?
What if it was totally fine for me to be worried about how this knee pain is going to affect my life?
What if it was absolutely alright that I don’t know why my knee is hurting and that that terrifies me?
(And, of course, substitute whatever emotion or fear that is currently real for you.)
Remember the point right now isn’t to fix anything. It is just to help us calm down so we can better feel what is happening in our bodies. And, part of calming down is helping ourselves:
- become aware that we are experiencing an emotional reaction as well as a physical reaction and
- name and acknowledge what those emotions are.
Once all the fears and worries have been acknowledged and you are feeling calmer, the physical pain will seem much less overwhelming.
You will feel calmer and more objective and will be able to turn your attention to the pain your physical body is experiencing.
You will be able to let yourself feel into that area of discomfort from more of a stance of someone witnessing the pain rather than being overwhelmed by it.
How? Well, let’s talk about one way to witness pain.
I’m not going to get into anything fix-y or change-y today.
For now, I just want to talk about one way to begin to practice the art of doing nothing. The art of witnessing yourself. The art of allowing yourself to be just as you are. Here goes. Ask yourself:
What if (yep, I’m doing the ‘what if’ thing again)…
What if it was ok for your knee (or whatever your pain may be) to be in pain?
What if…you and your knee are totally fine just as you are, all the tension, the pain, everything. Fine. Just as it is.
Now, let’s play with clouds. 🙂
Imagine you are a kid again. You are lying on your back watching clouds drift across the sky. You admire the constantly changing texture, denseness and shapes. All this change is happening above you. Yet you, you feel still and calm and peaceful.
Your pain is the clouds. You are lying there watching your pain. Watching how it jumps from one part of your leg to another, how it changes in intensity, how it shifts from throbbing to aching to dull to sharp. And you, you just watch. You just let it all happen.
And, you feel calm, relaxed and peaceful.
If all the emotions begin to surface again, you know you can always repeat whatever calming method works for you. And, then, you can just go back to watching clouds.
Keys to remember:
- Emotional distress and physical pain are often intertwined.
- The emotional pain can make it very difficult to effectively deal with the physical pain and thus needs to be addressed first.
- Physical pain is generally much easier to handle when the accompanying emotions have been met and you feel calm and relaxed.
- Watching clouds can be a powerful metaphor for how to witness pain.
Ok, that’s it for now. Over the next two weeks, whenever you are feeling pain or discomfort, take a moment and notice if there are emotions involved as well. If so, try one of the ideas above (or your own favorite method) to calm yourself and then, give watching clouds a try. And, of course, I’d love to hear how it goes.
What calming methods work for you? Other questions or comments? Let’s talk in the comments!