By David Joel Miller.
What are you doing to avoid feeling pain?
The question came up in a discussion of mindfulness about people who feel unable to be mindful, to meditate, because every time they do they become overwhelmed by extreme pain.
What do you do if you would like to use some of these introspective self-examinations approaches but when you stop what you are doing, even for a moment, you begin to suffer from painful memories of the past?
Here is the dilemma. I am not one to think that to have a happy life we need to excavate every trauma and pain you have experienced. I do in fact see times when cross-examining clients about past trauma can be harmful. The last thing I want to do in therapy is to re-traumatize someone who is suffering. But there is value to cleaning out the wreckage of the past.
One recovery saying that often rings true is “we are only as sick as our secrets.” Lots of dysfunctional behavior, substance abuse, excessive spending, sexual addictions and other compulsions are ways of trying to avoid having to feel those feelings which are so unpleasant.
Depression, PTSD, anxiety and a whole host of mental and emotional problems are also maintained by wounds from the past that have not healed.
We know that if you are feeling physical pain, just ignoring that pain is not a good idea. Athletes can sustain long-term injuries if they do not listen to their body and stop playing when they are in pain.
My take on this is that if when you try to meditate or be mindful and all that comes up is an overwhelming pain, you need to seek professional help to process and work through that pain. Otherwise, you are at high risk to keep running from the pain until one day your escape mechanism stops working.
Plenty of alcoholics and addicts will tell you that one day their drug of choice stopped working. Any effort to deny the pain can only work for so long and then eventually you will have to face the problem you have been running from.
Drugs and alcohol are common ways of trying to escape feelings but there are others. Using drugs in this way is a very dangerous habit. The relief from the pain is short-lived. When the drugs wear off the pain returns, only now it feels even more overwhelming. So you use again. The intervals between uses get shorter and the amount you need to use gets larger and there you are one day at you upper limit and still feeling the emotional pain.
Most of us are not good at reading our body sensations. We humans often confuse thirst and hunger, resulting in consuming excess calories and weight gain. We also confuse physical and emotional pain. Physical pain may be managed by medication but emotional pain, most of the time you need to feel it, in a safe environment, in order to heal it.
America is currently facing an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
One reason for this abuse is that people are using prescription pain medications, designed to treat physical pain, for treating emotional pain. The short-term relief results in long-term addiction. If you describe your pain to the doctor as all over in your body he may prescribe medication. If you tell the truth that you have felt this way since you lost your job or partner, the prescription will be some counseling.
The technical term for this is prescription drug abuse. It is easy to get addicted. Pills are quick and easy. They work for a while, then the pills create other problems like addiction. Counseling takes time but it helps you recover.
Mindfulness is meant to help with this, but it can be hard to just sit and stay with a pain for a while and really find out what this pain is all about. Sometimes we need to work on this emotional pain a little at a time.
I have heard this approach to reducing emotional pain described as “peeling the feelings onion.” You peel off a little, tell your helper about what you are feeling and why, then you cry. When the crying is done go back to the peeling. Repeat until all the pain is peeled away.
If you find that when you are alone or you try to clear your mind the only things that race in are those old memories of pain and hurt then you need to start healing those old wounds.
We humans have a bad habit of continuing to hold onto negative emotions long after those emotions have had any benefit. Not being able to release stress or regret can keep the torture of the past alive long after the incident should have been forgotten.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books