I was walking down the street several weeks ago. In a small park a child of perhaps six was running to his mother. He tripped as children do and fell down. Instantly his face contorted into a mask of everything you never want a child to experience – pain, fear, terror. He was on the verge of crying when his mother reached down and touched his head.
She said, “It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt. You’re just a little frightened. That’s all.”
He looked up at her and she kept going I her soothing tone.
“You just didn’t expect that did you? It’s okay, you’re not hurt, you’re just a little shaken.”
He looked at his hands and saw that there was no blood. He looked at his knees and saw everything was okay. In seconds he was up and running off to some other children in the playground. She noticed me looking and gave me a quick smile and shrugged.
It was an incredible lesson in how we are programmed to respond to unexpected events and to pain. Our instant reaction is not about pain, but of sheer terror. We are more afraid of what could happen, rather than what actually happened. Our reaction is not based on pain, but on the expectation of pain as well as a very complex array of emotions and feelings. We forget that pain is not just a simple physical sensation. It is a combination of shock, fear, hate, loathing and even shame that come into play.
When you get hurt, physically or emotionally, you instantly recoil from whatever it is that caused your pain. It is your body’s way of protecting itself. You may freeze up and go into a bit of shock as your brain tries to register what just happened. Then your emotions might come into play, generating a bit of an adrenaline spike. It is a normal mechanism, as your body prepares for the fight or flight response it was programmed for. Until your brain figures out exactly what just happened, it goes through a complex process so that you address the situation and then register the pain in order to not repeat your mistake.
In seconds, your mind and body flash from shock to emotion. In seconds you may feel hate for whatever it is that caused pain. You may want to strike out at it. Some people actually do. You might feel loathing that you recoiled rather than confronted whatever it is that caused us pain. You may also feel shame in how you reacted. So instead of just dealing with the actuality of tripping, or of touching a hot stove, or of a rough breakup, you are now dealing with a half dozen emotions that make the pain seem bigger than it ever was.
So stop, take a deep breath and think before you react. When you deal with pain, remember two things. First, pain is inevitable – both physically and emotionally. It will occur throughout your life. It is the Universe’s way of teaching us and helping us grow in our journeys and avoid making the same mistake twice.
Second, pain is just as much about the past as it is about the present. A painful event will cause your brain to quickly try to categorize it by relating it to past experiences. When you are going through a break-up, it is not just this breakup that is painful. It is the memory of all your past relationships that comes into play. That brings up years of feelings of failure, shame and frustration that you have to deal with. Not all of these memories are necessarily relevant to your present situation, but there get dredged up just the same.
The next time you get hurt, stop before you panic. Take a deep breath, and apply mindfulness to your pain. Focus your thoughts on what happened and separate the immediate physical or emotional discomfort from the memories that are flashing through your mind. When you allow yourself to be caught up in the trauma of the world you often miss the reality of the experience you are going through.
The next time you experience pain, physically or emotionally, think of the child in the playground. Think of how quickly he learned that the shock of a fall hurts a lot more than the actual damage it did to his body.
Also think about how quickly he got back into life and started laughing again.