Working with Fear and Pain

Winter is the season associated with introspection, slowing down and conserving resources. It is also the season associated with the emotion fear. Some of us know well the anxiety which arises the minute we stop DOING something. What we are forgetting in that moment is the importance of rest and recovery.

Nature knows how to rest and how to trust. As the tree pulls it’s life-giving sap into it’s roots in cold weather, it is allowing for the possibility that some of its twigs and branches may be sacrificed in winter storms. As bears go into hibernation and frogs literally freeze during winter months, they do so with some innate knowledge that winter won’t last forever.

That time of darkness can be scary. To survive winter requires a certain amount of faith that spring’s thaw will indeed come again. While NC winters aren’t typically harsh, there are those ice storms that lock us inside for several days, sometimes without power or phones. Some people appreciate these days as a forced method to “unplug.” For some, the prospect of being alone without modern distractions leaves us feeling vulnerable. And for others, these days are physically dangerous–leaving us without heat and the ability to cook food.

Alone with our thoughts and discomforts, we might have to face difficult feelings of fear, anger, grief or shame.  Even without ice storms, we may have experiences or circumstances which leave us feeling trapped, frightened, vulnerable. Something happens and we are left frozen in a state of panic. We know we need to move in some direction, but can’t see how we can possibly take that first step. Obviously, rectifying a threatening physical situation is the first order of business. But what do we do when the pain is not life-threatening but extremely uncomfortable?

Teachers like Pema Chodron and Jon Kabat-Zinn emphasize the importance of giving our undivided attention to both physical pain and difficult emotions. Our natural tendency is to resist discomfort…to want to push it away. But just like a two year-old wanting your attention, the physical and emotional pain you ignore only cries louder. Sometimes just picking up the child is enough to quiet her down.  Similarly, looking directly into the fear or acknowledging the pain is sometimes enough to calm it to manageable levels.

To do this, mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat Zinn suggests beginning with deep breathing followed by a body scan type of meditation. The idea is to allow yourself to actually feel what you are feeling, including difficult feelings like emotional and physical pain, fear and anger.

Similarly, in her book Walking the Walk, Pema Chodron offers an exercise with the acronym FEAR:

Find the feeling in your body. Locate the pain or difficult emotion. Where is it exactly in your body? What does it feel like? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Does it have any words?

Embrace the feeling. Treat that pain or fear or anger or grief the way you would treat a crying baby…with compassion and kindness. With an acceptance of the upset and a loving embrace.

Allow the thoughts that surround the upset to begin to dissipate. Don’t try to avoid them, don’t shame yourself for having those thoughts. Simply acknowledge that they exist, but let them fade into the background.  Continue to notice where the discomfort is, what it feels like and how it changes as you focus on it with loving attention.  How does it change when you stop giving credence to the thoughts and meaning surrounding the sensation of discomfort?

Remember others who might be experiencing similar pains or fears or difficulties. Pain and suffering are human experiences. Although our particular grief or anger feels unique to us, chances are there are thousands of others around the world feeling very much the same way we are feeling. In your mind, send those anonymous others your empathy, your compassion, and your hopes that thier suffering will be lifted.

Further Resources:

You can here more about this practice from Pema Chodron.

Local Quaker minister, SaraBeth Terrell, also offers this guided practice.

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditation for physical pain.

If you just need a laugh along with some scientific reasons that doing these kinds of exercises might actually help real pain, listen to Lorimer Moseley’s Why Things Hurt. In this short TED talk, Moseley discusses what’s happening in the brain when we feel physical pain. He explains why it is that we continue to feel pain–sometimes even severe pain–after the injury to our body is healed.

Finally, if you need some help, community acupuncture is a great way to turn inward without being alone. In a room with other people all intent on healing, you can receive acupuncture treatments designed to calm that “fight or flight” response. You can practice these techniques inwardly while under the compassionate care of a practitioner and commumity who are committed to nuturing your best self.

— Heather McIver, LAc

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