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.