It is just pain: an experiment

As a person who has lived with chronic migraines for more than a quarter-century, I have pain. I have learned ways to live with migraine pain; my family lives with my migraine pain. We have rules around dealing with my migraine pain, and we have ideas about what makes my pain worse. Talking about pain, avoiding pain and feeling my pain is really quite exhausting in itself.

Let me give you an example. For years, I have avoided big box stores. The smells, lights, and noises were sure-fire triggers for a migraine. To walk in was simply overwhelming. So I became a great online shopper. I buy groceries online, clothes, and I have even been known to buy toilet paper online. Yes, I know, it even sound silly to me. But, hey, avoiding pain is important.

Additionally, I have spent years trying out “migraine cures.” If someone told about how they could cure me, then I’d be there. I have literally spent thousands of dollars over the years chasing “cures.” That was my focus, a cure to get rid of migraine pain. Pain was simply a foregone conclusion, something fixed, something that existed until I found a cure.

Then a big shift happened. My sister, who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, sent me a video link to a Ted Talk. This blog post is my exploration with the concepts of pain that were introduced to me in that Ted Talk. The book by this speaker, Lorimer Moseley and David Butler, Explain Pain is life changing. Here’s the start of my journey with it (and I do mean start, so let me know what you think):


Pain is not a fixed thing

Pain exists within a context. It exists in relation to our brains, our relationships and our experiences. It is not a fixed effect of a disease.  I had never seriously considered the relational and associative aspects of pain. Even though I had been practicing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for a few years, I realized that my approach to that was even based in my belief that it served as a pain management strategy, not as a new way to have a relationship with pain. In other words, I approached MBSR as a potential cure, not as a paradigm shift in my experience of pain.

Pain rules

I have had many rules around my migraine pain. What I can’t do. What my family can’t do. The big box stores! My husband is required to go. Yes, this rule has been helpful, and has probably saved me from some pain. But rules have limited me, and even more so, some have actually caused me more pain in the long run.

For example, I began to see that just the thought of going to Walmart could trigger anxiety, head pain and nausea. The mere conversation about going to Walgreens or Costco for my medication would send me into a spiral. I didn’t actually have to go in the stores to have the migraine pain! My brain just heard the possibility, and it began to react. That is some serious brain training. My brain made assumptions to keep me safe. And those assumptions is what I dedicated myself to changing.

So I tested it – if I could reduce my anxiety about going to Costco, could I reduce the pain? Could I change my rule? Could I change my brain’s assumptions? In order to know I had to go into those stores, and train my brain to experience the actual moments in a new way. I have been learning that yes, I can re-condition my brain’s response to going into Walmart. I remind myself now, that it is not about avoiding pain, but also about employing my skills to change what I experience. This is a beautiful strength-building powerful place to be. I still don’t like going to big box stores, but I can. It is not easy, and it takes courage, but it is so worth it!

It has led me to believe that I can re-condition my brain’s responses to other rules too. What a beautiful thought!

Down DogIn Yoga

Pain in relation to yoga is a very big conversation. In my yoga practice, I decided to consider my pain rules. Some can be quite subtle, or even invisible. But I keep uncovering them.

One rule I lived by was that when I had a migraine, I could not do inversions or backbends, especially Uttanasana (forward fold) or Adho Mukha Shvanasana (down dog).  Backbends made my hurting shoulders hurt worse. So I avoided those poses when I had a migraine. I gravitated to poses that were comfortable and felt safe like Viparita Karani (legs up the wall) and supine twists.

So I tried another experiment. What if I practice Uttanasana, and just let myself feel the pain for a bit? What if I just let that pain radiate in all its glory while I was in that pose? I figured that the worst outcome would be continued pain. No additional actual harm would be happening in my body because my head was upside down. Literally, there is no new harm; it would just hurt worse. And I reasoned, it is only pain.

I did it. And I still do it. I force myself to have an uncomfortable and different experience with pain in yoga poses. And it does help. Seriously, I have more than 25 years of pain built up in my neck, shoulders and back. I cannot expect that conditioning to release without some sort of additional pain. I have to slowly undo what I have been slowly doing. My body is used to holding pain, and not skilled at letting it go. So there is my practice.

And that realization is revolutionary for me.

Explain Pain, and the other work of Lorimer Moseley, is deep and wide. It is so very complex in terms of my personal experiences and my physical chronic migraine disease. The work to unpack my conditioning is huge, but that is a better pursuit then searching for a cure. I know there is no cure, and that makes seeking that solution futile, and self-defeating. Understanding and changing my relationship with pain is all about me. I am not restricted to one strictly defined goal, but to whatever new and good experience comes my way. Even if there is new and additional pain along the way. It is temporary. It is just pain.

Watch that Ted Talk and find the Lorimer Moseley book Explain Pain here. And let me know what you think. (and you can thank my sister too!)