I used to be a horrible patient. When I fell running over knotted tree roots when I was about six years old and got a cluster of splinters in my elbow, my father had to chase me around the house just to take a tweezer to the affected area. When I had to go to the emergency room because I had a horrible cough when I was seven, my dad reminds me that I went “berserk” and needed to be restrained. I also had to be chased around doctors’ offices when it came time for needles of any kind. I was so evasive that my pediatrician, Dr. Edelstein (whose daughter, incidentally went on to become “Dr. Cuddy” on House) made me write myself a note, which he would keep with my chart, telling myself, in quavering kid handwriting, that “The TB test is really [underlined multiple times, probably by him] really not that bad.” And then the next year, when the note did not have the residual impact he expected, he made me add another “really.”
The point is I wanted to get as far away from pain as possible. And, why wouldn’t I? This is human instinct, isn’t it? Who wants to feel pain? Who wants to get closer to it? Most of us are quite content to run screaming in the other direction.
But the crying hissy fits, the tension-ridden chases, the crying and the screaming didn’t do all that much to make the pain go away. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the force with which I resisted the pain probably made things much more uncomfortable for me.
The same is true for our emotional pain. Do we want it to just go-the-f-away? Hells, yeah! But if we run screaming from it, the tension rises. It’s like trying to run from a barking dog. It’s going to chase you down and it’s going to be worse than if you just stood calmly and engaged with it. (This I literally know from personal experience, too! Metaphor for another time.)
If we ignore it, it doesn’t exactly abate, either. It’s like the annoying girl who sat behind you in Hebrew school who poked at your shoulder blade until you turned around. She wasn’t going to stop until you paid attention to what she had to say.
So what’s an anxious girl to do?
Dive in! Get closer to your pain. When you become curious about it, a couple things happen:
It loses its bite. Our fear of truly investigating our emotional pain casts a long shadow. And that shadow can make the pain itself seem even more scary, something from which we really must run. But, when you commit to getting curious, what looked scary and foreboding from from far away will become a lot less imposing.
Another benefit to getting closer to your pain is that you might actually find a way out of it. So back to that barking dog analogy: You’ll never figure out how to get the dog to stop barking if you’re running away from it. Right? …Right? (I ask twice because I know you’re wary of this theorem.)
Okay, so maybe I’ve made a convincing argument for not running away, but how on earth are we supposed to recondition ourselves and work the muscles we need in order to engage with our pain. We need to create a new instinct, a new habit.
A Right-Brain Activity for Anxiety Abatement
Your first reaction may aways be to run. But catch yourself. Then:
- Invoke the power of your five senses. Use your imagination to create an image of your pain as if it were three-dimensional object with all the properties of something in the physical world. What does it look like? Smell like? Taste like? Feel like? Does it make a sound? What does it sound like? Write down your musings.
- Account for what you’ve created: Through this imagining, you’ve created a “thing” that you work with. What needs to be done to this thing to make it less powerful? Do you need to simply move it out of the way? Flush it down the toilet? Burn it and bury its charred remains? Again, use your imagination.
- Contextualize it: Ask yourself if there are any real-life actions you can take to approximate the actions your intuition has inspired.
I want to know if you found this useful. Were you like me as a kid around doctors?
Have you had a chance to get closer to your pain? How did it go? Were you able to connect to your pain? Did the image of what it looked like give you any valuable information? Leave your feedback in the comments below.
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