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What is pain? Why do we have it, and what to do about it

What is pain? Why do we have it? And what happens when it shows up and won’t go away? What do we do with our pain when it starts to inhibit us from the things we love doing - like keeping active, traveling, hiking, dancing, gardening...or inhibits us from things we HAVE to keep doing, like walking, getting into and out of our cars every day, carrying groceries, reaching down for our shoes?

There are a lot of definitions out there about what pain is and why we have it: Pain or the pain reflex is an innate part of the body’s defense system that alerts us to injury or harm. This alert goes up when we’re experiencing tension, stress, overuse, illness, or direct harm. Nerve fibers, pain receptors, the spinal column and the brain itself are all complex systems involved in the physiological and neurological underpinning of pain.

Said simply, pain is a sensation. Our nerves (cells that help your body send and receive information) send a message to our brain that something is wrong, and our brain then causes us to feel pain. Sometimes pain is quick and fleeting, like burning a finger on the stove, or stubbing a toe on a doorframe. But sometimes pain is not so fleeting. Sometimes it shows up and stays with us for a very, very long time.

So what do we do when that pain arises, and doesn’t go away?

This is an area in which I have a lot of experience. A vast majority of the people I work with in movement practice come to me because they’re in some kind of pain. I myself lived many years in chronic pain. And here’s a little secret - when we are in pain, especially chronic pain, what we end up doing is becoming an expert in our own pain. We know what the pain feels like, where it is, and how bad it makes us feel. It takes up a large amount of our attention (i.e. brain space, energy, time, life). This is important, because the things we pay most attention to (i.e. our pain), are the things that we most fully perceive and experience (i.e. our pain).

What I find time and again with the people I work with is that we all become very good at paying attention to our sensation of pain. And when asked to pay attention to other sensations in ourselves and in our bodies, we come up blank. And yet, the key ingredient in moving away from pain is to become adept and aware of the wide range of all the other sensations in our bodies that are not pain.

And yet, so often, when clients first come to private sessions or classes with me, and I lead them through the process of a “body scan” (giving them verbal queues to feel themselves and their sensations), they say “I really don’t pay attention to my sensations unless I feel pain.” Therein lies an essential piece of their pain puzzle.

The good news is, awareness of your own body sensations is a skill that can be learned. In the work that I do, we use movement as the vehicle for sensing. I find that in the beginning it can be helpful to know a little bit about what “sensation” actually means, and to then look for some opportunities in your own life to begin developing your sensory awareness. This is not to say that sensory awareness is a panacea, but it is an essential key to understanding yourself and the pain you are experiencing. If this resonates with you, and you’d like more support in developing your sensory awareness in order to help with pain you are experiencing, please get in touch with me here.

In the meantime, these are some things to start thinking about...

What does sensation actually mean?

Sensation: any human perception that is directly based on the senses (such as touch, taste, vision, hearing, and smell)

  • : a process such as seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling resulting from stimulation of a sense organ, often as distinguished from a conscious awareness of the sensory process

  • : awareness due to stimulation of a sense organ

  • : a state of consciousness due to internal bodily changes (i.e. the sensation of hunger)

  • : the ability to feel something physically, or a physical feeling that results from this ability to feel

​What are some examples of sensation?

  • pressure

  • texture

  • touch/tactile feeling

  • balance/equilibrium

  • temperature

  • vibration

  • joy/nostalgia

  • fear/fight or flight instinct

  • taste/smell

  • comfort/pain

  • light

  • sound

​What can you do today to start developing your sensation skills and move away from pain?

Click the image below for access to a free, 20 minute “body scan”. This recording can be done at any time, anywhere, as frequently as you like, as a way to return to the present moment and begin to develop the skill of sensory awareness, which is a key component in understanding your pain and what to do when it arises.

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