A Healing Response to Pain: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion

By Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, Mindfulness-Based Approaches Topic Expert Contributor

How do you react when you’re in pain? Do you resist it, ignore it, or push it away? Do you get consumed by it? Would you like to learn a more healing and compassionate way to respond?

To be alive means we feel happiness, joy, sorrow, and pain. Most of us want to feel happiness and all the other positive feelings, but pain? Not so much. Pain, though, is a natural part of life. It shows up physically, such as when we’re injured, sick, or aging, or as the emotional pain of frustration, sadness, loss, or sorrow. It also arises when we’re consumed by some mind state, such as anxietyor depression.

How Resistance to Pain Creates Suffering

“Resistance creates suffering. Stress happens when your mind resists what is. The only problem in your life is your mind’s resistance to life as it unfolds.” —Dan Millman, author and personal development lecturer

Whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental, staying open and present to pain is challenging. What makes it so isn’t the actual sensation of pain; it’s the way we react to it. We catastrophize, worry, or ruminate about what happened, what it means, and how it will affect our future. Sometimes we go into mental gymnastics, trying to figure out how to make it go away. We use our energy in ways that are exhausting and don’t help. This only fuels the pain, morphing what might have been a temporary period of pain into a longer one.

These reactions stop us from seeing when we’re caught in some belief or story about how life needs to be in order for us to be happy. If I’m always wanting to please others and neglect myself in the process, I can’t possibly be happy. Fearing rejection or the loss of a loving connection can keep me engaged in behaviors and patterns that are unhealthy and hurtful.

They can also show up as addictions, distractions, or unhealthy mind states, including:

  • Overeating to subdue or numb the pain
  • Self-medicating with alcohol and/or drugs
  • Avoidance strategies such as video games, gossip, shopping, etc.
  • Ruminating (getting caught in thoughts, stories, judgments, and opinions about how life should be)

Can you see how these patterned ways of reacting to pain can create deep suffering?

So how do we help ourselves?

How Resistance Manifests

The first step is to become aware of when and how we’re reacting/resisting pain. I like the way Christopher Germer, a clinical psychologist and author, describes the resistance that shows up when emotional pain arises. In his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, he describes the series of internal dialogues that occur when a pain is present as follows:

“I don’t like this feeling!”

“I wish I didn’t have this feeling.”

“I shouldn’t have this feeling.”

“I’m wrong to have this feeling.”

“I’m bad!”

Have you found yourself reacting similarly? Did it intensify the pain?

When we get stuck in these reactive cycles, we cut off from the very source that helps us heal and reconnect with life.

Moving from Reacting to Responding

The practice of mindfulness, and specifically self-compassion, helps us soften the resistance. We stop trying to escape, control, or ignore the pain and instead open to it. Staying present, we begin to investigate, through the practice of nonjudgmental awareness and kindness, how our body reacts to pain (tightening/tension); how our thoughts are affected (fearanger, aversion); and what emotions are in need of attention and loving acceptance.

This pausing to connect is a pivotal moment, one where we’re shifting from reacting to responding. Deepening our exploration, we can practice the following steps:

  • Connect with the breath. Notice areas of tightness, tension, or pain in the body. Send a compassionate, soothing breath to the parts of the body that are distressed.
  • Close your eyes. Notice if there’s some fear-based belief operating in the background. Try not to get hooked in the story. Instead, gently focus on the breath, allowing the rhythm to soothe the body and emotions.
  • Acknowledge the feelings that are present and notice where they show up in your body. Sometimes sadness is felt in the heart area, anxiety in the stomach, anger as a tightening of the muscles. See if you can soften around what you’re feeling.
  • Place your hand on your heart as a gesture of love and compassion. Imagine the hurt as a small child in need of affection and attention. Surround the child/hurt in a warm embrace.
  • If overwhelmed by emotional pain, go for a walk, focus on the sensation of your body moving, and breathe in and out with each step.
  • Take in the sounds of nature or listen to calming music. Let the sounds move through you, soothing the hurt/pain.
  • Take a restorative yoga class to help you learn to attune to body, mind, and heart in ways that restore balance and promote healing.

This is a powerful, transformative, and healing approach that helps us stay present to the pain and challenges we all face in life. Most of all, it helps us stay open to all of life’s joys and sorrows—and that is what makes life worth living.

May you live with ease and peace.

© Copyright 2016 by Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, therapist in Coral Springs, Florida.

Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org. The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. The view and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org.

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