Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Viktor E. Frankl
Last week, I had a small procedure done at a radiology clinic. I had a local anaesthetic and steroid injection into a finger joint that was swollen. I was told this was quite a painful procedure. Seeing as I am a counsellor/psychotherapist who teaches body/mind connection for understanding and enlightenment through breathing, grounding and progressive muscle relaxation, I thought this was a good opportunity to practice what I preach.
When the painful part arrived, I closed my eyes and breathed into the pain. I went with the pain, and imagined what it looked like. It was sharp and red, and I could see inside my finger where the needle was going through the sheath into the bursa. I felt the painful stinging in my finger as the nerves in my head started to explode and then recede. However, this sort of pain is easy to understand. It’s just physical pain with a beginning and an end. It’s short, sharp, impersonal and unambiguous.
Intense emotional responses can be triggered by physical pain. I also recall, on a different occasion, many years before I became a body centred psychotherapist, feeling a mixture of fear, panic and depression triggered by the smell of the alcohol wipe and the pain of the butterfly needle insertion. I’d had this procedure done several times before with the same emotional response, so this was not new, but I really wanted to understand what was happening for me in that moment. It felt bizarre. This was getting up really close and personal. So, what was this all about?
According to Psychology Today, Alan Fogel of Body Sense states that when people feel emotional pain, such as peer rejection or relationship breakdown, the same region of the brain gets activated as when people feel physical pain, such as breaking an arm and vice versa. So, neurons that wire together, fire together and get stronger and stronger, as appeared to be in my case. So, how do we get out of this endless loop? How can we separate physical and emotional pain?
For the recent finger procedure, I used mindfulness, staying the present moment, observing and not labelling pain as good or bad. I unexpectantly found courage, understanding and enlightenment and slowly breathed through it, welcoming it. “Bring it on,” I said to myself. I wanted to seize, conquer and tame it. I needed to feel the pain but not the overwhelming emotional response. By staying in present moment and appreciating (yes appreciating) that pain I could observe in myself my ability to push through with respect and engagement. There was an end game in sight (this part is really important), so I could process and archive this experience in its totality almost immediately with no lingering depressive, abandonment and rejection like after-effects or after-shocks. And it worked.
This mindfulness process can be used to help tolerate physical exercise. Gyms have slogans such as “Your mind will give up long before your body does,” which now has scientific backup. I go to the gym not just to try and get fitter, but to feel the resistance of the cable weights against my arms and leg movements to help me experience the presence of my muscles from the inside and how they grow and shape to protect me emotionally and make me stronger and resilient. I am sculpting the inside of my body, my mind and my soul. I’m aiming for a six-pack of mind-muscle. I am responsible for my mind/body connection. I am responsible for all my reactions and responses. I have the power to choose and within that choice I find power, control, strength and resilience. But most of all I find freedom.
picture credit: https://busy.org/@inspireoscar/soaring