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The holidays are often difficult, and can be downright depressing, especially for those who have pain from a loss, a traumatic experience, or just plain loneliness (e.g., not having a date for holiday parties, not being asked to holiday parties). Sometimes the pain can be lessened as it is ignored while sharing time with others. Others find cutting the best way to escape emotional pain.

Stating the obvious, pain is not a pleasant experience (putting aside for a moment pain asymbolia, a medical condition where people perceive pain but don't suffer from it). Physical pain can be useful as it alerts us to something wrong with our bodies. It also teaches us to avoid harming our bodies in the future. (As my father used to say, "if it hurts to do this [slaps himself across the face], don't do that.")

Emotional pain is a bit different. How we associate that pain seems to play an important role in the intensity of the miserable feeling. If we can get over the fear associated with the pain, the pain isn't as hurtful. For example, someone who associates the feeling of having a bandage pulled off as part of the healing process will experience less pain than someone who hasn't any expectation of healing. That's one of the primary reasons why friends, family, and psychologists coach us to look to the positive when dealing with pain. (Although, faking reality that things will get better doesn't help and can lead to terrible consequences.)

What pains are you experiencing over the holiday season? Is emotional pain ever useful to you? Have you ever tried to disassociate yourself from physical or emotional pain? Have you experienced so much pain that you're now used to it? How would you describe your pain tolerance? How do you heal from your emotional pain?

Yesterday marked the end of my 18-day stay in New York Presbyterian Hospital's burn unit, where I landed after accidentally overturning a pot of hot cooking oil onto myself. I ended up with second- and third- degree burns over much of my legs, but after skin graft surgery and some physical therapy, I can walk again, albeit unsteadily, and I have skin on my legs again, albeit ugly skin…

But the one thing that did seem to dramatically affect my pain level was my belief about what was causing the pain. At one point, I was lying on my side and a nurse was pulling a bandage off of one of my burns; I couldn't see what she was doing, but it felt like the bandage was sticking to the wound, and it was agonizing. But then she said: "Now, keep in mind, I'm just taking off the edges of the bandage here, so this is all normal skin. It just hurts because it's like pulling tape off your skin." And once she said that - once I started picturing tape being pulled off of normal, intact skin rather than an open wound - the pain didn't bother me nearly as much. It really drove home to me how much of my experience of pain is psychological; if I believe the cause of the pain is something frightening or upsetting, then the pain seems much worse.

And in fact, I'd had a similar thought a few months ago, which I'd then forgotten about until the burn experience called it back to mind. I'd been carrying a heavy shopping bag on my shoulder one day, and the weight of the bag's straps was cutting into the skin on my shoulder. But I barely noticed it. And then it occurred to me that if I had been experiencing that exact same sensation on my shoulder, in the absence of a shopping bag, it would have seemed quite painful. The fact that I knew the sensation was caused by something mundane and harmless reduced the pain so much it didn't even register in my mind as a negative experience.

Reflections on pain, from the burn unit


Original posting by Braincrave Second Life staff on Dec 29, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=674

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