Learning to Accept and Embrace Pain

Michael McCastle

Coach

Endurance Sports, Sports Psychology, Personal Training, Strength and Conditioning

 

Life is full of triumphs, failures, and difficulties, as well as periods of relaxation, comfort, and order. While everyone has a different goal, one aspect of life that most people tend to avoid is pain. Pain is the body telling the mind that it is being subjected to something potentially harmful, and that continued exposure may result in a negative consequence, like a permanent injury. All living organisms tend to live their lives in a way that subjects them to the least amount of pain possible.

 

 

At the most basic level, pain is perceived as a wholly negative phenomenon. There is no denying that feeling pain or seeing pain in others is unpleasant and even upsetting. But pain can be a very beneficial asset in life, and if one becomes accustomed to pain, they are more likely to not allow it to become a problem.

 

I have voluntarily subjected myself to many types of pain over the course of my Labors, to demonstrate that if one embraces pain, it can be a transformative experience. I recently undertook and accomplished the goal of running 20 miles a day for 100 consecutive days to raise awareness for increased suicide rates within the veteran population. The degree of pain I experienced during this labor was not comfortable; it was not fun; and it was not glorious by any means. But I can also say without reservation that I am a better person because of the pain I endured.

 

If pain is accepted and embraced, it can lead to an increased sense of pleasure, an enhancement in one’s own life, and even elicit a positive reaction from those around us.

 

The Required Antagonist of Pleasure

The first positive benefit of pain is that it can enhance pleasure by providing a contrast. Pleasure is pain’s opposing phenomenon. While pleasure can obviously be felt regardless of whether one has felt pain in their life, feeling pain makes feeling pleasure all the more enjoyable, as there is something to compare it to. If you were happy all the time, how would you know it? Research in psychology indicates that:

 

“Pleasure is limited by the amount of pain it removes. That is, pleasure is only understood within the context of pain and the relief of pain is itself a pleasurable experience. Consider the enjoyment of food after a long fast, the pleasure of cool water after being in the hot sun, or the sensation of a hot spa following submersion in icy cold water”1

 

In essence, pleasure really has no meaning unless it can be compared to its antagonist. Subjecting oneself to pain makes the pleasure that follows doubly satisfying. I have personally felt this juxtaposition during many of my labors. For example, in 2015, for Parkinson’s Disease research, I climbed a 20ft rope so many times within a 27-hour period that it equated to the height of Mt. Everest (29,030ft). My entire body felt torn, especially my arms. However, after weeks of recovery, the simple fact that my arms were no longer in pain gave me an immense amount of pleasure. Just acknowledging that lack of pain made me feel physically well and mentally more resilient. 

 

Pain and Your Brain

Another reason why pain can be beneficial is that it enhances one’s long-term cognitive ability and self-regulation. When one subjects themselves to pain, they are essentially demonstrating to themselves the depths to which they are willing to go, which can be used in the future to compare all other painful experiences. Two Australian researchers found that introducing aerobic training increased pain tolerance and improved vigor, while decreasing fatigue, tension and depression.2

 

When one subjects themselves to pain (in the above example, intense aerobic exercise), all future experiences of pain that are less intense than the initial exposure have something to be compared to. This enhances self-regulation, by providing a reference point for the amount of pain that one’s body can endure, and also increases cognitive ability by decreasing depression and anxiety.

 

I can personally attest to these enhancements, specifically during another labor of mine that involved pulling a full-size pickup truck for 22 miles across Death Valley. By the end of this event, I understood how far I could push my body under the most extreme external conditions, giving me a benchmark for all future pain-inducing experiences. Death Valley represented the depression and desolation that envelops the minds of those afflicted with PTSD and thoughts of suicide.

 

After accomplishing my mission under those excruciatingly painful conditions, I felt a sense of hope that others within that same space, mentally, could find strength in their most vulnerable state and greatness after their darkest hour. In truth, all pain comes to an end, no matter how seemingly hopeless and desolate the environment is that surrounds you. 

 

The Shortcut to Mindfulness

A recurring lesson during all my Labors is that pain can be used as a tool for self-mastery and mindfulness. I do not measure success by having mastered a skill, setting a world record, or by simply reaching a destination. Those things can be done with diligent study and practice in most cases. I am more concerned with the man I need to become, and the degree of pain I will embrace or overcome along the way.

 

Pain increases our presence in life. Imagine building a house, and as you’re hammering a nail into a plank of wood, you slip with the hammer and smash your finger. What will you do? Will you immediately continue building the house, or tend to your finger? Of course, you will first tend to your finger; this is the function of pain. It interrupts everything that we are thinking, feeling, or doing, and forces us to focus on what is happening right here and right now. The effect is that we are more engaged with the present and less engaged with external, uncontrollable factors.

 

In essence, pain is a shortcut to mindfulness. During my 100-day journey of running 2000 miles, the more I suffered, the more pleasure I felt. Sometimes it was the “runner’s high” after a particularly grueling 20-mile run, and at other times it was simply the pleasure of knowing that I had survived another day, mile, minute, or step. The fact that I was in pain meant that I had an opportunity to discover a means to embrace or overcome it. If I allowed my mind to solely focus on the pain, both my mind and my efforts would be debased. To reach the end of my labor, I needed to do it step-by-step and day-by-day. 

 

Pain is only a symptom of the effort I put into my Labors. So, step-by-step, I ran toward my goal and through the lens of pain, I saw that the 100-day effort was made from 100 single days. There was no difference between one day and another. 99 days became 98; 50 days became 10 days; and finally, I reached the last day. The first and the last day were no different. The beginning was the end and the end was the beginning. 

 

Witnesses to Pain

Finally, pain can be beneficial in a more outward way, by producing feelings of empathy and affiliation within those witnessing the pain itself. When a person is in pain, those surrounding that person want to help relieve it by helping that person out in any way they can. Have you ever watched a friend, family member, or loved one go through some sort of physical pain or mental anguish, and just felt that you would do anything to relinquish that pain? This feeling can be manipulated to induce good in the world.

 

By subjecting myself to a 20-mile run for 100 days straight, I used this feeling to raise awareness for veteran suicide rates. And it largely worked, as people read about my story or actually watched me in person, and felt the need to contribute to my cause or support in any way they could. If done correctly, one can subject themselves to pain in order to transform the world for the better.

 

The feeling of pain is by no means fun. It can prove to be excruciating at times, and simply overwhelming if one is not prepared for it. But through the experience of pain, people become better. They have something to compare pleasure to. They increase their pain tolerance and cognitive ability, and can elicit a positive emotional response from others, which can be used to create a more positive world. This is what I hope to achieve through my Twelve Labors, and I believe that I am on my way to doing just that. 

 

Do not fear pain. Under the right context, it can be a tool for self-discovery, mindfulness, and a great multiplier in life. You just need to find a purpose or cause that makes it worth embracing. 

 

References:

1. Bastian, Brock, Jolanda Jetten, Matthew J. Hornsey, and Siri Leknes. "The positive consequences of pain: A biopsychosocial approach." Personality and Social Psychology Review 18, no. 3 (2014): 256-279.

2. Anshel, Mark H., and Kenneth G. Russell. "Effect of aerobic and strength training on pain tolerance, pain appraisal and mood of unfit males as a function of pain location." Journal of Sports Sciences 12, no. 6 (1994): 535-547.

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