June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month! According to Migraine.com, there are about 100 million people with headaches in the U.S.; about 37 million of these people have migraines. The World Health Organization suggests that 18 percent of women and 7 percent of men in the U.S. suffer from migraines. After back pain, which accounts for 27% of pain; headache pain accounts for 15%.
Apparently we are a nation in pain. According to paindoctor.com, “pain affects more people in the US than diabetes heart disease and cancer combined. A whopping 126 million or 55% of all adults experienced pain in the past three months. And that’s just the pain that’s reported.
I remember having migraines when I was in my late teens. There was little else I could do than lie in bed until it passed. Lucky for me, it was episodic and I never had to deal with them again. But in 2004, I experienced firsthand what it’s like to suffer from chronic pain all day every day. As a result of an undiagnosed spinal tumor, I had severe neuropathy affecting 75% of my body. I lived on pain killers, including 4000 mg daily of Neurontin. Again, lucky for me, the tumor was finally diagnosed and able to be surgically removed.
Those many months of dealing with chronic and intense pain were eye-opening for me, especially when it came to my work as an Option Method Teacher, where I focus intensely on limiting beliefs. I’ve worked with many people who suffer from chronic illnesses, including chronic pain. Helping them to focus on how their emotional responses are rooted in their own belief system and not a direct cause of the illness and pain itself is extremely liberating. As my teacher, Bruce Di Marsico, used to say, “Isn’t it enough that you have pain? Do you have to be unhappy about it as well?”
What I’ve learned in my work with others and myself, is that fears related to pain or illness are based on beliefs, just like any other fears. If we are willing to consider that, we can learn a tremendous amount about why we feel the way we do about pain and free ourselves to feel differently, if we want to. Our choice in the matter is a key element of understanding. There’s nothing wrong with having emotional reactions to pain. In fact, many would argue that it’s normal and natural, and in fact, beneficial to feel bad in some way about pain. We take that thought as a fact, the truth, the way we have to be. But perhaps since we really do want to be free from suffering, it’s time to turn that paradigm on its ear.
Here are some key beliefs that I uncovered for myself:
First, pain and emotional response to pain are two distinctly different things. I thought about different types of pain I had experienced in my life. For example, muscle and joint pain. I just viewed them as a normal reaction to overdoing it, working out, etc. and didn’t have much of an emotional response at all. The difference wasn’t in the intensity of the pain. It was because I believed I knew where the pain was coming from and that it would last a day or two at most. The same with menstrual pain, which can be very intense at times. I realized if I didn’t know what menstrual cramps were and just woke up with them one day, I might very well be concerned. So knowing that I have different emotional responses to pain based on what I believe, I went further. Why was I was afraid of this particular pain, even if I didn’t know where it came from and how long it would last?
Second, like so many other fears, fears about pain are related to the future. I saw this vividly for myself one day as the pain meds were wearing off and it was still another hour til the next dose. As I started to feel that distinctive bone crushing feeling of neuropathy, I found it hard to think of anything but the pain. I became immobilized in my chair, clenching up and closing down. It was hard to concentrate, but just by asking myself the question above and others like it, I came to this realization instantly. I saw that the fear about the pain wasn’t about the pain that I was feeling at the moment, which was in fact, manageable. It was about the pain I thought was coming, which I believed would be so severe, I wouldn’t be able to think straight, let alone live my life. Realizing this brought me back to the present. As the anxiety about the future pain lifted, my relationship to the pain I was feeling started to change. I’m not going to say that it magically went away. But it did dissipate and more importantly, I began to imagine the possibility that the pain and my reaction to it were not set in stone. By not constantly anticipating future pain, I was free. I began to loosen up and move around.
Third, there’s something wrong with me that I’m having this pain and this illness/dysfunction. This is a fear that many people have. In the early stages of my problem, I was very sensitive to changes in my body, such as tingling and burning in my legs, but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, even after the pain became intense and I was losing function. I realized how critical it was to not fall into the trap of self-blame and because I refused to do that, my energy was devoted to finding someone to help me. I have to say these were really joyous months, as one person after another offered another piece of the puzzle until I found my way to a doctor who diagnosed the problem correctly.
Fourth, emotional reaction to pain is directly connected to the fear of losing happiness. Another way of saying this is that emotional reaction to pain is directly related to fear that we will have to be unhappy. Understanding what we believe about the illness or pain we are having is crucial to getting to the bottom of our emotional reaction. But the real mother lode of our belief structure comes when we uncover the connection between fear and unhappiness/happiness. As we use the Option Method to help us understand ourselves, we will see time after time that all fear is directly related to this belief. When it comes to pain, people are often afraid that they will lose control of their bodies and their lives, not be able to work or live independently, end up alone without anyone to help them and love them. As a result, they will have to be unhappy or so they believe. We may not have control of what happens to us in our lives, but we always have control about how we feel about it. Getting in touch with our enormous capacity for happiness under any circumstances and how our beliefs countervail that capacity is the ultimate freedom.
If you’d like to find out how The Option Method can help you with your pain, call me at 973-714-2800.
To your happiness, Wendy Dolber