Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Walking Through the Pain

"Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever." ~ Lance Armstrong

The night before my interview for graduate school I didn't sleep. Instead I considered what my life would be like in the next year if I actually got in. I pictured myself living so far from my family. I thought about how lonely my mother would be as she went about her day to day life without me. I worried about whether or not she would be able to find happiness when two of the people who brought her the most happiness were 1500 miles away. In those hours I had decided that even if I got in I would defer for a year. I wasn't ready.

The next day I was excited and nervous and full of hope and promise for the future. How had my thoughts and emotions changed so suddenly in those few hours? Was it the change from day to night? Did the darkness bring out my deepest fears as it did when I was a child? I understand that as we lay down to sleep all the distractions of the day fade away and we're left with nothing but our thoughts; but how is it possible that our emotions can change so drastically? Better yet how is it that we can't remember the feeling of those emotions the next morning? We are able to remember that we were sad or frightened. Yet we are incapable of remembering the feel of those emotions. We don't remember the feeling of our chest constricting or our eyes burning.

I believe it has something to do with the connection between emotional and physical pain. My mother once told me that if women could remember the pain of childbirth no one would have more than one child. Even if you look back on a less significant pain such as being pricked with a needle you can remember that it hurt and you can describe what the pain was like but we are incapable of remembering the feeling of the pain itself. This is because pain is our bodies way of telling our brains that there is a problem which needs attention. Pain is merely a perception created by pain receptors in our skin that relay a message to our brain so that can react. Once the trigger is removed there is no biological reason to remember the pain. Memory however operates in a completely different way having to do with pathways being created in the brain. There is no neurological connection between pain response and the formation of memories. There is however a neurological connection between physical pain and emotional pain. The brain can't tell the difference. The same part of the brain that recognizes physical pain also reacts to emotional pain.

Unfortunately, this means we have a tendency of making bad decisions more than once. We'll go back to that boyfriend or girlfriend that hurt us so badly, because although we can remember the effects of that emotional pain we are unable to remember the depth of the pain. This also means that while it is possible to alleviate physical pain by removing the trigger it is not possible to remove the emotional trigger. Instead we must overcome it, it brings to mind the image of someone learning to walk again during physical therapy. In this instance they are inflicting pain on themselves in order to heal. We inflict pain on ourselves every day simply by living; by taking risks and dealing with the outcomes. Be it physical pain, emotional pain, or perhaps a combination of the two we are all simply walking through the pain.

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