The 2021 Nobel prize for medicine was awarded to two scientists, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, who independently worked out the impact touch and temperature have on the body’s nervous system. Turns out, our sensory system is quite complicated and well evolved. A core part of their research was on the subject of pain—a universally undesirable phenomenon and one we try to avoid at all costs. But it doesn’t have to be that way, though. While pain is inevitable and even necessary, suffering is not.
Any “top 5” lists of the five most excruciatingly painful life events will include the experience of childbirth. For most healthy women, labor and delivery probably outdo any other pain they experience in their lives. And yet, paradoxically, women don’t stop bearing children. Our species continues. And no, the credit doesn’t go just to anesthesia or surgical procedures such as the C-section—those are very recent advances in the field of medicine. Anesthesia, for instance, was first used in 1846.
So, what causes half the human race to keep bearing children over and over again? It’s not that they are ignorant or forget the pain of childbirth—that pain is inevitable and well documented. The answer lies on the other side of the pain. In its reward.
The elation and joy of delivering a healthy baby and the ensuing maternal bond between the mother and baby are what keep our species going. For most mothers, the pain of childbirth is temporary and pales into insignificance compared to the bliss of holding their baby.
And this kind of pain tolerance isn’t limited to childbirth alone.
Pain is inevitable
Almost all exhilarating experiences in life require humans to transcend some level of pain. Physically challenging activities such as running marathons or climbing mountains appeal to many because waiting beyond the obvious pain is the euphoria of achievement when you cross the finish line or scale a challenging mountain.
But, what if you’re pretty happy with the status quo and these sorts of mortal rewards don’t appeal to you? What if you’re the type who doesn’t feel the need to self-inflict pain upon yourself to feel good eventually? Does that mean you have immunity from pain and can lead a pain-free existence?
The short answer, no. Pain is inevitable. No matter what you do. Or don’t do. And there’s a reason for that. Survival.
Pain helps us survive
Pain is nature’s most trusted survival mechanism.
I’m going to boldly predict that no one reading this has ever had to run for life from being chased by a lion. We just don’t have the space, in our modern lifestyles, to encounter ravenous predators. Literally, too.
Yet, every single one of us can imagine just how that scenario would play out and how to respond should such an event occur. So much so that even when we don’t experience the pain (fear) first-hand, we can still perceive its agony. Not because we’re suddenly an extremely empathetic lot. But because pain is a great instructor and has taught us how to sense pain to survive.
Pain is a great teacher
Unlike the algebraic formulas you learn on Monday and forget by Friday, the lessons pain can teach us have stayed with us for centuries. And we continue to learn every day.
- Pain is what causes you to buy three identical pairs of oven mitts after you burn your hand, reaching into the oven with just a kitchen towel. (Of course, you’re not to blame—the apple pie can only wait so long.)
- Pain in your knee is what stops you from getting injured—the body’s way of getting you to slow down, so you don’t risk ruining your joints.
- The mental pain of missing a mortgage payment is all the motivation you sometimes need to work on yet another boring spreadsheet.
- Ever felt like calling people names to their faces but manage to hold your tongue anyway? You can thank your pain radars—it is the thought of the subsequent backlash and emotional anguish that prevents you from lashing out or being obnoxious.
As it is obvious from these examples, pain can be physical, mental, or emotional. It can manifest as real physical distress or emotionally as fear, anger, irritation, or anxiety. Regardless of its shape and form, pain serves one important purpose—to rein us in so we don’t go too cray-cray.
And though pain is inevitable, neither I nor anyone I’ve encountered has ever said, “I can’t wait for more pain.”
That’s because we’re all experts at transforming pain into something way more serious and detrimental. Suffering.
Pain v Suffering
While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important distinctions between pain and suffering.
Pain is the sensation you feel when you burn your finger while you cook. Suffering is the story you tell yourself about how difficult your life will get because of the injured finger.
Pain is a point in time in occurrence. Suffering is a story—with strong fictional roots—about the pain. A story that includes characters, real and imagined, from the past, present, and future.
The bad news? Pain is inevitable.
The good news? Pain does not need not translate into suffering.
The inevitability of pain
The existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate - John Green, Fault of the stars.
On behalf of all the broccolis in the world, I find the above quote mildly offensive.
Yes, it’s possible to have some genuinely pain-free experiences. But, I hasten to add, we’re bound to encounter roadblocks in others. As the saying goes, “life isn’t just a bed of roses (or buckets of chocolates).” Nor will it ever be. I’m not challenging my inner Eeyore here. I’m simply stating facts.
If pain is inevitable, why are we so pain phobic? Why do we spend so much of our time, in futility, trying to outsmart and prevent pain when it would just be easier to learn to accept it and move on?
Or, does that sound like too much of a cop-out? Should we not meekly accept pain in the first place? Should we be fighting it instead?
The answer: It depends. If the pain is merely because you are outside your comfort zone, it can be valuable and beneficial to stop resisting it.
Pain and gain
Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms, you would never see the true beauty of their carvings― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
No pain, no gain isn’t just a well-rhyming phrase. It packs a lot of truth in it. It is life’s pain that gives rise to life’s glory.
To build muscle, you need to tear it up first.
If you’ve ever done any strength training routines, you’ll understand the term “good sore.” It’s the muscle soreness that sets in when you start a new exercise regimen or up your current one.
Exercise-induced soreness is caused by tiny injuries to your muscles called microtears. The body gets to work soon to help repair the tears and heal the muscle. It does this by sending in increased blood flow and nutrition to the damaged cells. In the process, the muscles don’t just recover but get stronger thanks to the increased TLC (tender loving care) from the body.
The microtears, through training, are essential to kickstart the muscle-building process.
Today’s pain is tomorrow’s strength.
This is true of many areas of life. Without a teardown, there can be no rebuilding. Progress requires us to endure small doses of pain without turning it into suffering.
But we are so fearful of the pain that we do all we can to numb it. In doing so, we remain firmly entrenched in our comfort zones while progress happens outside.
Don’t numb the pain
The enemy of development is this pain phobia - the unwillingness to do a tiny bit of suffering - Bruce Lee.
We’ve mastered prophylactic cures to even the possibility of pain.
- We list excuses for why we won’t be promoted at work even if we try. In reality, we are reluctant to make the extra bit of sacrifice the promotion entails.
- Because we fear the consequent unpleasantness, we like to use time as a couch rather than a tool and procrastinate difficult decisions.
- To avoid facing pain, we are all too eager to experiment with alcohol, drugs, or heavy-duty opioids.
- We distract ourselves with technology, social media and act like tumbleweeds in the wind to escape uncomfortable situations.
All this, because we conflate pain with suffering instead of treating pain for it really is —a momentary inconvenience.
So, how do we embrace, or at least stop running away from moments of pain?
Learning to be okay with discomfort
A word of caution here—some of these methods and suggestions may not apply to chronic pain or severe emotional anxiety. Those need far more sophisticated, nuanced and specialized tools and the guidance of skilled professionals.
But if you have a garden-variety case of “my head hurts to even think about it,” then these tips are for you.
1. Get physical
Learn by doing. Most of us struggle with abstract concepts. We do way better when we engage multiple sense organs.
The simplest way to learn to be okay with pain and discomfort is by making the pain as real as possible. Make it physical.
Take on calculated physical challenges. Find out where your comfort zone ends, and discomfort begins. If you’ve seen kids play, you’ll notice that they take a few more risks when they know that an adult is nearby to rush to help should they fall.
Similarly, setting boundaries and engaging in calculated risks can help strengthen our pain tolerance.
If you’re running at a comfortable pace, step it up for just thirty seconds. See what it feels like to be a little out of breath and gasping. It is only for 30 seconds, after all. You can do anything for 30 seconds.
Keep pushing against physical boundaries; you’ll soon surprise yourself with how far you go.
2. Misery loves company
Pain can be contagious. Seeing someone else in pain can in itself cause distress, thanks to our empathy neurons, or as Professor V.S.Ramachandran refers to it, Gandhi neurons. But it’s also possible to use this empathy to amplify the pain into something much grander than it actually is; to create a mountain out of a molehill.
Misery loves company. If you’re feeling miserable already, choose your company wisely. It is okay to vent. But, constantly retelling painful tales can add more drama to the experience. Soon, the exaggerated stories you tell may bear no resemblance to the actual pain you experience. And that is a slippery slope from pain to suffering.
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened - Mark Twain
3. What’s your kryptonite?
Like history, painful experiences tend to repeat in our lives. But how would we know if we never paid attention to what causes pain in the first place?
Popular singer-songwriter Lorde is one of the many public artists who struggle with stage fright and nervousness. You wouldn’t know it based on the confidence she projects when performing to huge crowds and, that too, at some of the world’s most prestigious events such as the Grammys.
Lorde acknowledges that she has a case of stage nerves. She is mindful of the sensations in her mind and body when she steps on stage. When asked in an interview about how she overcame her crushing nerves, Lorde replied:
Usually, I just tell myself, like ‘The second you get up there it’s going to be fine,’ and I always know it’s going to be fine and I always have a great time so, you know, I just try and tell myself that ‘You’ll be in your zone. The lights will be on, and blank people will be cheering and, you know, it’ll be okay’.
Before you deliver pep talks like that to yourself, it helps to know your pain triggers. And the best way to do this is through the practice of self-observation and mindfulness.
4. Radical acceptance
Clinical psychologist and famous meditation teacher Tara Brach is the proponent of the concept of “radical acceptance.” This means learning to recognize, acknowledge and accept any distress—physical, mental, or emotional.
According to Brach, accepting pain or adverse circumstances does not mean a meek submission or a resignation to the event. Instead, it means to actively—hence the word radical—accept the difficult circumstance so you can move on. You cannot change something without first fully accepting it for what it is.
Life regularly and inevitably involves emotional stress, anger, fears around health, shame around failed relationships. Still, anything short of fully accepting our human experience will keep us caught in those emotions. Tara Brach.
Pain is inevitable. But any growth—personal or professional—requires us to make peace with a tiny bit of pain.
Rearranging our lives to avoid pain at all costs is a surefire way to keep us spinning on our axis because pain can be resilient—any attempts to circumvent or numb the pain will only serve to address the symptoms and not the cause.
Acknowledging pain does two things. It stops us from fighting a losing battle, AND it helps us become a bit more introspective on the triggers for the pain.
Knowing the problem is half the solution. And solving the other half just takes some practice.
Finally, pain is a reminder that you’re alive.
If I woke up in the morning and nothing hurt, I would think I was dead.