(202): The Problem of Chronic Pain and Why It Can’t Be Solved Directly
I’m not talking about the pain that results from hitting your thumb with a hammer. That’s just the body’s normal signal system telling you it is a bad idea to do that. I’m referring to chronic pain, where the purpose of pain is subverted from its ostensible role in keeping us from doing dangerous things, so that the pain becomes seemingly idiopathic, without a cause, signifying nothing except screwed up neurological function.
As I was reading through Dr. David Hanscom’s book Back in Control, it occurred to me that his outline for eliminating pain was to, in some way, supplant its control of my life so that it might disappear of its own accord. But in order to do that, I have to give up the idea that I am going to “solve” my pain, because pain pathways are there permanently (although not necessarily activated). Specifically, he says:
“The ultimate paradox of dealing with mental or physical pain is that it becomes unresolvable by trying to resolve it.”
This reminds me of the Catch-22 of a person who has a panic disorder. After having a panic attack, in which the body seems to be melting down, sometimes without a detectable cause, a sufferer will often live in fear of having another attack. This is the mind feeling itself to be at the mercy of the body, i.e., an uncontrollable physiological reaction that might be triggered by the original stressor, say, open spaces, but is just as likely to be triggered by an intrusive fear of the reaction itself, even without the primary stressor. And the worst is that panic attacks can appear for no reason at all!
This concept resonates with me when I think of my own chronic pain, especially when I read Dr. Hanscom’s words. He stresses that pain is not a simple problem that can be directly addressed like, say, the instructions to build a house. This is because, in focusing on the problem of the pain, the pain becomes central and thus controls my consciousness. And I can’t just not think of the pain unless I’m actually not in pain, in which case, it isn’t a problem.
There is a concept called ironic process theory, or more familiarly, the white bear problem. What happens when you tell yourself not to think of white bears? You’ll find that you can think of nothing else; the white bear becomes intrusive, so that despite your best efforts to exclude it, that cursed white bear will become burned into your conscious mind by the very effort to banish it.
That concept rings true when I think of my experience of pain. If I concentrate on trying not to feel pain, I will feel more pain than usual. Just as if I am walking on a narrow ledge and tell myself not to look down, I’ll be compelled to do so. The problem of white bears seems to be a cousin of Poe’s Imp of the Perverse, an inexplicable ‘demon’ in a person that compels him to do (or think) the exact wrong thing.
So is my mind working against me, so that my body betrays me and I end up in endless agony? Perhaps it is so. I do know that fear often compels a person to act in a way that is detrimental to well-being. Perhaps it is only the bugaboo of fear, as in the fear of a panic attack, that causes the pain pathways of my neurological system to light up and subject me to that endless pain without known cause.
If I could get rid of the fear, I could then redirect my awareness and solve the problem of pain by not solving it, so to speak.
One step in Dr Hanscom’s method for gaining control over chronic pain (or anything distressing for that matter) is expressive writing, which I have not yet managed to implement with regularity. One writes for about 15 minutes straight about something emotional or painful, allowing the words to flow freely, not editing anything. Then the writing is destroyed. Expressive writing is associated with improvement of symptoms in a wide range of disorders, improvement in state of mind and even faster wound healing.
So perhaps the problem isn’t so much the pain (which is the symptom) but the way my neurological system has become disordered in its everyday function. I’ve certainly got a lot of disorder in my life, so it is time to write about it in a new way. Perhaps, as with brainstorming a plot or characterization in fiction writing, some of these methods will give me new ways to look at my situation, and I can become more than just a “chronic pain sufferer.”
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