August 10, 2017

Don’t Dump that Pain—How to Listen to your Uncomfortable Emotions.

I walk through the casinos, thrilled by the dancing lights and the aura of excitement in the air.

The buzz of conversation swirls around me along with the smoke of hundreds of cigarettes. It’s odd to be in a place where people smoke indoors. I find it to be intrusive.

It takes a few moments to get my bearings and see past the initial glam and glitz of rainbow lights and loud pop music. As I begin to study details in the casino, I zero in on the energy of the people. The dealers look stoic but underneath their stiff demeanors, they look tired and lifeless. The people playing the games sit like zombies, smoking, drinking liquor or syrupy soda, and pushing buttons.

I watch with curiosity, but I don’t understand the pull of gambling, the rush of adrenaline it delivers. It only makes me feel anxious. I do however, understand the pull we have to numb ourselves and the Siren Song inviting us to check out of our present moment, and into the thrill of adrenaline, or the lull of sedation.

We’re all familiar with pain. It’s impossible to make it out of childhood without having encountered situations in which our hearts were broken or we were let down or made to feel less than inherently valuable; this is the human experience.

We arrive with souls intent on being broken down in some way and once we achieve that initial “goal,” we spend the rest of our short lives trying to mend, repair, and build ourselves back up, stronger and more knowledgeable than before.

But what happens when we get stuck in the trauma? When we’re in so much pain that we simply don’t have the will or sense to do the work necessary to mend and repair? We anesthetize ourselves. We use things like drugs, alcohol, sex, food, football, TV, and cigarettes to numb our discomfort.

I know I do it in my life. Boredom causes me extreme anxiety, for example. When I feel pangs of restlessness arise, I immediately start scanning the environment for something to numb that awful panic, something exciting, something rebellious, and although finding that thing brings a temporary relief, the actual anxiety doesn’t go away.

On a psychological level, numbing our pain is self-protective and functions as a guard, so we come by the tendency naturally—but there’s a consequence. When we trade in awareness for unconsciousness, we stuff the feelings we’re avoiding into different areas in our bodies (spine, liver, heart…), in the same way we use a trash can.

If we dump uncomfortable emotions in regularly, those places become fragile and can develop disease. The longer we avoid our feelings by numbing and ignoring, the higher the chance of developing physical pains there.

So how do we know where we’re shoving the things we don’t want to feel?

Start with the pain.

Where are we achy and miserable?

Let’s say for the sake of example, that someone has a back issue. Their lower back is always tight and tends to go out when they’re feeling stressed. What we’ve been trained to look at is the actual physical cause: “My back hurts because I slept funny.” The cure would be to take some Advil to numb it. What if we examined what was happening in their emotional life for clues instead?

Pain is what our body uses to get our attention.

When we examine our physical pain by researching our emotions, we gather information about the state of our unconscious minds. If we have reoccurring fear over lack of money and we numb the fear by gambling or drinking alcohol (and store that fear for later in our sacral area), then when we “sleep funny” our sacral area feels tweaked.

If we’re aware of the correlation, then we can say, “Aha, my back hurts. I must be stressing out about money. How can I support myself here?” —instead of being called to numb it with substance. The pain wants us to see these things so we can process them differently; instead of focusing on the symptom, we can really address the problem.

The next time you start to feel physical pain, see if you can match it up to something stressful happening in your life.

Check in with both the event, and the pain, and see if both things form a logical pair. If they do, be curious about it, watch it, develop a sense of awareness around it and see if you can assuage the pain by working the emotional component.

It’s common sense to try and dissociate from our afflictions; whether emotional or physical, they hurt!

The principal idea here is to become aware of the emotions we’re numbing, so we can process them instead of pushing them down deep somewhere in our bodies.

Ideally this will help us experience less physical pain and guide us into a deeper relationship with ourselves.


Author: Natha Perkins Campanella
Image: Ariel Lustre/Unsplash 
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Taia Butler

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Natha Perkins Campanella