Creativity Without Borders

Innovation from East and West

Can Pain Be Valuable?

Serious pain is no fun. But does it have any benefit? Maybe.

I’m almost never ill so when I am, I am an impatient, wimpy patient. This past week, I WAS that patient. I had pain like I’ve never had; it laid me flat for six days, a long, long time for me. I swallowed pain killers and Advil, and not much else. I tried to sleep but found no comfortable position. I grimaced, I gritted my teeth and at times I yelped. Nothing worked. 

 

Floridapain.com -- Sacroilliac joint pain

I cannot imagine how people with chronic pain deal with it. But my short bent taught me a lot. 

First, of course, and most obvious now that I am through it: a pain free day is a good day. Period. I want to remember and hold that close even as I forget the searing hurt that consumed me for that relatively short time. We all “know” such things intellectually, then we “learn” them and promise to change our ways (being a slug, sitting too long, whatever the bad behavior may be), but we often forget them. I read long ago that cancer patients “promised” they would change their behavior if cured. Indeed, six months after they were feeling better, they began to slip back into old habits. So I have to remind myself every day, maybe every hour for a while, that I do need to change. 

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Second, and this was interesting to a lover of creativity: as I was in the “half-in, half-out” grimacing pain phase, I tried to do work in my head, since I couldn’t sit up, let alone get to a computer or read a book. I’m a “head person” so for my mind to be so fuzzy was really frustrating. Then, during the “It’s still there all the time but it’s duller” pain phase, I tried to divert my attention from pain to other thoughts. I answered emails (short) and tried to read and found I could forget the pain for a few minutes at a time.

 

redorbit.com -- Healthy and Chronic Pain Brain images

Interestingly, though, in that fuzzy state, I solved problems I’d wrestled with for weeks. I suspected they were like those middle of the night “solutions” that sound good at 3am but are wacky when viewed in the clear 7am sunlight. But these have held pretty well, even as I’ve begun to heal. So the benefit of the “half-state creative mind” was confirmed, again. I know that when I’m half asleep, my mind is working. Now I’ve learned that when I’m half-awake from illness, it’s still working. Go, brain!

So, for me, the “value of back pain” takeaways, even as I wish NOT to repeat the experience are:

First, even in pain, the brain plugs along. When I quit grimacing, I could tap that half-conscious part of my mind that solves problems and is (a bit) creative.  

Next, I realized what I knew in a different way. Focusing on something that diverts attention (problems) from what’s distracting (pain) is a powerful force to draw on. 

Finally, I relearned how tough it is to break bad habits. So I’m starting with small ones, day by day.  And today is a pain free day, so I’m in great shape.

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D., is Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University.

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