It is natural to tense against pain, or even the anticipation of pain. When we are hit with the shock and surprise of pain, our primitive fight-or-flight defense kicks in, but we are often in a situation where it is impossible either to fight or to run. Unfortunately, that physical tension obstructs the blood-oxygen flow and that deprivation, in turn, intensifies the pain.
To prove this to yourself make a tight, white-knuckled fist. Keep your breathing steady and your shoulder relaxed. Keep that tight fist for about half a minute, and notice how quickly it becomes uncomfortable because of the effects of tension and lack of blood flow in your fingers. Tension almost always increases pain.
Mother Nature would never have sent you defenseless into the world with absolutely no way to handle painful situations. She equipped you well with a small "survival toolbox" to help you through those teeth-clenching times. Among the tools at your disposal are UNDERSTANDING, IMAGINATION, BREATHING, RELAXATION and a small pair of invisible BINOCULARS.
Pain has its place. If you had been born without the ability to feel pain you probably would have died very young. Pain is your body's red light that warns, "Stop! Danger! Fix this problem!" It is not designed as punishment. It is designed to snap your attention to a potentially destructive situation. And then there are times when you choose to endure a painful medical or dental procedure that will improve your quality of life and even longevity. Pain is not the villain although there are those rare and unfortunate situations when the pain system goes berserk.
The mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. You must have read about the many documented cases of hypnotized patients who have undergone heart bypass surgery or multiple root canals without a bit of anesthetic. An ultra-focused mind is like an incredibly powerful laser. Most of us let that beam bounce around like a dropped flashlight instead of aiming it where we need it to shine. When you are getting a big-needle-stick, I'll bet that all your energy is intently focused on the needle stick.
Practice IN ADVANCE aiming your mind at something pleasant other than the point of pain. Think of a pleasurable scene, a memory, a task or a journey. Then explore that image right down to the last blade of grass or grain of sand. Elaborate on your image until it involves all your senses - how does the grass smell, how does the sand feel under your bare feet. Climb the stone steps to an ancient temple or follow a butterfly across a field or listen to the fading chime of a bell. "Visit" your image often so that when you need to summon it, it is there for you.
The next time you are in an uncomfortable, painful situation notice that your breathing changes almost instantly. Typically you begin to shallow-breathe or worse yet, you hold your breath. One of the many magical qualities about your breathing is that it links your physical body, your mind and your spirit so when you breathe deeply, quietly and rhythmically you have a positive and quick reaction across your total being. While there are many extraordinary advanced breathing techniques, you can stay simple and still have dramatic results. Advanced preparation will build your confidence and increase your chances of staying in control.
Make a commitment to yourself to hold a slow steady breathing rhythm NO MATTER WHAT with the air moving in and out as if you were filling and emptying a small balloon behind your bellybutton. Vow to keep that steady count as if you were breathing to the click of a metronome.
If your breathing becomes too rapid, breathe in through your nose and exhale as if you were blowing out a tiny candle or blowing away a very delicate bubble.
Or count your exhalations, one through ten and then backward from ten to one.
We have already discussed the problem with physical tension intensifying pain but there is another little secret that is based on the design of your breathing cycle. Every inhalation is work. The diaphragm (floor of your ribcage) flattens down slightly and the intercostal muscles between your ribs flare your ribcage out and up somewhat like an opening umbrella. The vacuum created by the slightly larger chest capacity draws in a fresh breath.
Every exhalation is a release or letting go. To squeeze out the air, the diaphragm rises up to its resting domed position and your rib muscles lower your ribs. There is no place for the breath to go but out! It is logical and effective to tie your relaxation efforts to the natural relaxation phase of your breathing. Each time you exhale, imagine that you are breathing out additional tension. Remember that tension intensifies pain.
No, I'm not kidding. Pain may be just one aspect of a larger entanglement of illness and treatment that seem to consume every hour of every day. When you are juggling chemo, radiation, specialists, hospitals and second opinions it is understandable that this involvement shifts your focus away from all those things in your previous life that gave you strength and stability. Of course, every chapter of your cure must receive its due diligence but never lose sight of yourself getting past this challenge.
Your mind and body need to see beyond the discomfort and concern. Show them the way. Look beyond the pain and make plans for something that is fresh, fun, useful and nurturing in the future.