Avoiding is, without a doubt, my favorite coping mechanism. I’m not sure if it grew out of trying to ignore my physical pain, or for other reasons I’ve yet to identify, but it’s a tool I employ often. While being able to push physical discomfort to the back burner may sound like a skill, it backfires more than it is useful. This is particularly true now as I try to learn whether a behavior helps or hinders my perception of pain.
Here’s an example of how ignoring your pain* can backfire : Let’s say that I start feeling uncomfortable during an activity, like having coffee with a friend. The first sign that something is going wrong is usually a sharp pain right in the front of one or both of my hips. Before long the pain wraps around my back, and then, if I continue to ignore it, radiates down my legs through my knees. Next come the numbness / pins and needles. In the time it takes for my body to go through these checkpoints my mind goes through its own processes. I get anxious and my heart rate goes up as I stress and wonder how I’m going to deal and how quickly I can get home. [These emotional responses only escalate pain, by the way.]
If I was practicing mindfulness I would be able to notice the earliest warning signs of each symptom, and then would feel completely comfortable / confident implementing whatever tool I needed at that moment. Perhaps some breathwork, a brief meditation, or simply changing my body’s position would be enough.
Instead, I usually push all thoughts of pain aside. I don’t want to deal, so I simply won’t. The problem with this approach [well, one of the many problems] is that once I get in my car to go home, the coffee date that was helping distract me from my discomfort is over. As I drive I think about how I can get out of any other plans I have that day while my anxiety climbs higher. I then spend the rest of the day holed up alone in my house, feeling guilty for canceling plans. I lie on the floor and do nothing, and my inactivity makes my pain even worse, as does my disappointment in myself for being unproductive.
So that’s pretty much a best case scenario. It’s one that I find myself in fairly often, and one of the first things I’m trying to change. I’m not yet confident enough in my meditation skills to feel like I can get myself out of this situation once the process begins, nor do I feel I could even identify the initial warning signs. But, I know with absolute certainty that a combination of mindfulness, meditation, and a bit of exercise is enough to pull me out of even the worst pain flair, so that’s the first step, right? The second step is practicing both meditation and mindfulness while making my way through book after book on the topics, attending local classes, and basically second-guessing everything I ever thought I knew about myself. Not much work to do here…
This whole “commitment to getting better” thing is definitely a process. Taking my meds may have been the easier path, yet this one is way more fun.
*And I don’t mean pretending to ignore your pain like that person who walks around grimacing and making pain noises yet responds “I’m fine” when people ask if they’re okay. I mean actually ignoring your pain, as in deliberately not thinking about it.