How to Think of Pain in a Way That Can Lessen Its Intensity
Learn the value of describing pain and unpleasantness in a neutral fashion.
Posted September 4, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
In this post, I’m going to describe a short and easy practice that can help ease physical pain and other unpleasant experiences, from other types of physical discomfort to mental discomfort, such as anxiety and worry.
We have a choice about how to describe unpleasantness in the mind and in the body, and which choice we make can actually lessen the unpleasantness of the experience.
To describe this practice, I’ll focus on physical pain, because it’s such a prevalent, unpleasant experience, as most of us know. (Note: This practice is not a substitute for seeing a medical professional about pain and other medical issues, and it may not be helpful for people in severe pain.)
You’re going to learn to describe pain in a neutral fashion by leaving out the adjectives. This is because adjectives, such as “terrible,” “awful,” “excruciating,” and “unbearable,” are emotionally charged. They add a layer of mental suffering that need not be present when you’re in pain.
Let’s try it by experiencing both ways of describing the pain. We’ll start with the “adjective way,” if I may call it that. Close your eyes and pay attention to the physical sensation of your breath as it comes in and goes out of your body. Do this two or three times just to calm your body and mind.
Now, let your attention gently rest on a place of pain in your body. Describe the pain to yourself this way: “Experiencing unbearable pain [in my shoulder… in my leg… in my head]”—wherever it is in your body. Say it again, using whatever adjective you tend to use: ”Experiencing intolerable pain in…”
Now, still gently resting your attention on the pain, this time describe it this way instead: “Pain is present [in my shoulder… in my leg… in my head].” “Pain is present.”
I hope you felt the difference, both physically and emotionally, between describing pain as unbearable or as intolerable as opposed to simply acknowledging that pain is present in your body. The second way of describing the pain takes the emotional punch out of it, making it easier to experience as simply one aspect of your present-moment experience.
If this didn’t work for you, go back to the instructions and try it a couple more times.
There are two positive effects I’ve noticed from describing pain neutrally; remember, this applies to any unpleasant experience, physical or mental. The first positive effect is that, when I describe it using words such as unbearable or terrible, I focus my mind on it even more.
By contrast, when I describe the pain by simply acknowledging that it’s present, it becomes one of many experiences currently in my field of awareness. So, pain may be present in my shoulder, for example, but maybe my feet are feeling good. Or pain may be present in my neck, but the sound of a bird singing outside is pleasant to hear.
You can do this practice with your eyes open, too. Still, start with two or three calming breaths as explained above. Then, describe the pain or other unpleasant experience in a neutral way. You’re likely to find, for example, that although “pain is present,” or “anxiety is present,” there are other experiences in your field of awareness that are pleasant, such as a beautiful painting on your wall.
The second positive effect I’ve noticed from describing pain in this neutral fashion is that it keeps me from setting an unpleasant experience in stone, as if whatever is unpleasant will always be this terrible and always be present in my life experience.
Returning to physical pain again, when you think of it as “unbearable” or “unrelenting,” you tend to treat it as something that will always be at the same level of intensity. But when you simply acknowledge that “pain is present,” or perhaps, “there is a pain in my body,” you’re leaving the door open for change.
And change will come; it’s inevitable because no sensation stays the same. Everything is in flux.
This practice doesn’t ask you to deny that pain or another unpleasant experience is present. It simply gives you a different way to describe what you’re feeling.
You can turn to this practice any time of day. Simply set the intention to become aware of when you’re adding an emotional punch to an unpleasant experience by using descriptors, such as “unbearable” or “terrible” or “relentless.”
When you become aware that you’re doing this, consciously change the way you describe your experience by taking those adjectives out. You’re in effect taking the “I” out of your description, so you don’t identify with it as who you are. Instead, “pain is present,” or “anxiety is present.”
It may take some time to get good at this because this practice asks you to change a habit—one that may be well-ingrained—of adding that emotional punch to your experience. The good news from neuroscientists is that not only can you break unskillful habits, but you can also develop new, skillful ones.
This means that all you need do is set the intention—that is, make the commitment—to change the way you describe pain or other unpleasant experiences as I’ve set out here. Each time you catch yourself describing those experiences the old way and then change your description to the new way, it becomes easier to do the next time…and easier the next time…until you’re naturally describing pain or other unpleasant experiences in a neutral way.
By taking out descriptors, such as unbearable or intolerable, you’re in effect taking a step back from whatever the unpleasantness is, so it can become one of the many experiences currently present in your field of awareness: “Pain is present but soothing music is also present.” “Pain is present, but that show on TV sure makes me laugh, and that feels good.” “Pain is present, but this mouth-watering food is present too.” “Pain is present, but this sweet quiet is also present.”
This practice can not only lessen the intensity of pain, but it also opens your mind to the impermanent nature of all unpleasant experiences. They will change. Everything does.
I hope this practice works for you. My best to everyone.