What If You Could Turn Off Pain?

turn off pain

I have an admission to make: I am a man. The reason this will matter is I am about to talk about the pain of childbirth. What could a man possibly know about it, right? So I have a request: give me the benefit of the doubt for now.

Won’t That Hurt?

It all started when my wife went into labor with our first child. I’m an empathetic guy and my little lady was suffering. She was only 127 pounds at nine months pregnant and our daughter who was about to be born was almost seven of those pounds. She was having a natural childbirth so she wanted no drugs before the child was born. That was all very noble when this was all just theory but now it was really happening.

The doctor said he wanted to make this easier for my wife by making an incision so she wouldn’t tear. By this point, my wife was up for any experienced professional advice coming her way so she readily agreed. What he didn’t mention to her was that he would do it without anesthetic. He pulled me to the side and told me though. I was, shall we say, concerned. I mean, wouldn’t that HURT? He said actually no, he would make the incision when she was distracted by a contraction.

And he did.

She didn’t even notice. I almost passed out.

More Demerol Please

Things went smoothly and after 45 minutes of pushing, we two were now three. My wife, who had been awake all night with contractions, went straight to sleep. So did the baby. Everything was great.

The next day, the doctor comes bursting into my wife’s hospital room. “Do you feel all right?!?” he practically shouted at her. “I’m fine. What’s the matter?” she replied. He said in spite of his precautions she had still torn on the inside and that he didn’t know how she was conscious with her blood count as low as it was. He rushed her into surgery and repaired the tear. He prescribed a serious painkiller (Demerol) and all was fine again.

The next day, with all this drama swirling in my head, I asked her if she was in pain. “Yeeeessss…” she replied, with a big silly smile on her face. That seemed…odd to me. So I asked, “Do you care?” “Nooooo…” was her response. Ah, our new friend Demerol to the rescue.

Something Better Than Demerol

Right about now you might be thinking that this has been a commercial for Demerol. Far from it. I learned about two “pain switches” from watching my wife and considering how she was able to turn off the pain:

  1. Pain only hurts if you focus on it
  2. Pain only hurts if you give it meaning

So let’s consider each point in more depth.

You Get To Choose Where Your Focus Lies

Have you ever cut yourself without noticing? Maybe someone calls out to you, “Hey, do you realize you’re bleeding?” and you didn’t. Upon being alerted to the bleeding though, you now experience pain. What changed? Physically, the circumstances are identical. The reason it didn’t hurt before is because you didn’t place your focus there. Now you do, and so you dutifully experience pain because, well, you’re supposed to when you are cut and bleeding. And that leads to the next point.

It Only Has the Meaning That You Give It

Who says you are supposed to? Everybody, I guess. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. But it’s not the truth. The fact is some tough guys would just slap a little duct tape on that cut and move on.

Really though, you don’t have to be all that tough to use these two methods to reduce or eliminate pain. They work equally well for emotional pain as they do for physical pain.

Changing Focus

So how can you change focus? One way is to expand your view. The point of pain can still be in it but it is now a smaller part of the picture, perhaps even an insignificant part.

Another approach is to focus your attention elsewhere. That’s what worked for my wife. She was so engaged in contracting and pushing and bringing a baby into this world that the doctor’s procedure didn’t even enter the picture.

It Means What You Say It Means

When my wife was laying there, postpartum and post surgery, I presumed she must be in pain. I was wrong. I was wrong because she did not allow me to give that meaning to things. She gave it her own meaning, albeit encouraged by Demerol. But the painkiller was just a detail. She was also free to choose to not care about the pain without it.

External pressures aside, nothing means anything to you unless you consent to let it be so. An athlete may actually associate pleasure with pain, exclaiming, “No pain, no gain”. You make your own associations and you are free to change them if your past choices no longer serve you.

So here I am, still just a man. But I saw in action that anyone can turn off pain if they use the right switches. I am told (and you mommas can back me up on this) that childbirth is about as painful an experience as one can have. So if these switches work for childbirth, they can work for anything anyone, male or female, might encounter.

What do you think?

Photo by Tiffany Dawn Nicholson

14 thoughts on “What If You Could Turn Off Pain?”

  1. The switches that you write about DO work, but more so for pain that is of limited duration or that affects only a portion of the body.
    For chronic, moment-by-moment, full body, day-to-day pain…well, not so much. You can use the switches to increase your quality of life – and I definitely do – but then it can become a problem of balance too.
    For example, I can change my focus and transform the way I see and experience pain but doing so without an awareness of my physical limitations and boundaries (pushing myself; doing too much; ignoring warning signs, etc) invariably leads to massive amounts of pain throughout my body that can, literally, last for months. And as my body focuses on functioning during this, it can lead to a lessening of my mental/emotional functioning as well.
    I would say that the key; the most important key; is balance. Knowing where to draw the lines in ways that increase your ability to be in the world in positive, or even joyous, ways in spite of your pain. And balancing that in turn with things outside yourself that can help you breathe and move beyond the pain.
    All in all, this was a great post and I enjoyed reading it – and even enjoyed the brief return to my own childbirth memories, lol!

    1. While I agree the pain induced by temporary problems, i.e.; cuts, bruises, muscle strain, even childbirth and surgery may be controlled by the mind, chronic pain is a whole different issue.

      The pain from childbirth is temporary and is accompanied by the hormone oxytocin, this hormone both causes contractions and controls your mood. It is present in the system for up to 7 days in the system and sometimes longer if breastfeeding. This hormone while controlling the mood, controls attitude, and attitude is usually reflected on how you feel and interpret pain.

      Chronic pain is ever present. It’s level can go from mild achiness to severe and intense of either a short or long duration, but the point is, it is always there. Chronic pain gives the person no relief so it is hard to not give it attention. It does control your life. Depending on how you may feel it controls your life.

      I have suffered from chronic pain for 18 years. Do I give it attention? Absolutely. If I do not pay attention to my pain level I do not know how to take care of myself. I follow very strict nutrition guideline, exercise regime, and meditation to have some type of quality life. If I do not adhere to this regime my pain will escalate and then my pain controls my life.

      I do understand your point of view with your blog. I respect it. But I would like to point out that the parasympathetic system of your body is out of your control. Different people experience pain in different ways. I do have a high tolerance to pain, but when you live with it everyday with little relief you are very aware of it. Chronic pain cannot be compared to temporary pain. Temporary pain you know in your mind will go away, that there will be relief, that in itself is a drug.

      1. Cynthia and Terri, if you are dealing with chronic pain I can imagine why you would be drawn to an article with a title like this. Of course there isn’t a pat answer like, “Just flip this switch and presto! No more pain!”

        Temporary or chronic, we do have a choice in how we experience pain. That was the point I was trying to make when I stated that my wife did not deny her pain but rather chose how to be with it. We have to ask ourselves if there is some deep underlying message this pain is trying to communicate and that we are resisting. There may be layers to expose. Such an examination takes courage and I applaud you both for being in that examination. You might also find this article of interest: http://www.veraclaritas.com/never-suffer-again/

    2. I understand your point. I believe it can work also with chronic pain, but as you said, only on a portion of the body. So i disagree with 1 of your points, but I agree on the other. I was able to switch in my mind when i had chronic pain in my shoulder due to it being dislocated a year ago. Now, i am much better but i remember it being hell, and there were days where i was able to switch, others in which i would end up being frustrated, irritable, stressed, even anxious sometimes. I do think that in cases of immediate strong pain, you can switch it off with the techniques here above.

  2. AMAZING POST,really inspiring me ,and i guess we can overcome pain by ignore it sometimes ,BUT not always .
    sometimes if you ignore it usually it will become bigger and more painful ,
    maybe in this life we need to be more pasient but the problem nobody can endure pain for a long time ,and some of them they use it to hurt others ,or simply they use it as an excuse to not work hard on that day.
    it’s NORMAL to feel pain ,this the life ,and none can feel happy all the time
    the solution to me is to call my best friend and look for someone can make me smile .

    1. You make a valid point that ignoring pain is not the answer. Actually the exact opposite is the answer. Turn your full attention to the pain. Let its message be delivered without judgment. You may find that once having been heard that it will be happy to leave you.

  3. I have found that laughter, conversation, and other distractions can take my focus away from minor pain, therefore I agree with Sara about calling a friend to make you smile. I think how we handle pain depends on our pain threshold. Good post. It is good you didn’t pass out :)

  4. I appreciate your post very much. While it’s true that many distractions can steer us away from feeling the full brunt of our minor pains, choosing to be with the major pain can work too. I say that based on decades of living with chronic pain and befriending it rather than viewing it as the enemy.

    1. Pain has one mission: Acknowledge me! It is amazing how often we deny it its sole objective. So it turns up the heat as a result. And then we ignore that. They don’t teach us this in school, alas we have to learn for ourselves that pain is a messenger and we ought to listen.

  5. I do agree that one’s attitude towards things (life, pain, emotional trauma etc.) determines the extent to which they can hurt us. Happiness is a choice.

    And yet, as I read this post I could hear alarm bells going off in my head.

    Cynthia and Terri both pointed out that chronic pain is an entirely different cup of tea. While they focus on actual physical pain, I do believe that the same principle applies to emotional pain.

    Chronic emotional pain is our soul telling us that something is seriously wrong. Turning one’s focus away from that has alarming implications. Excessive and self-harming behavior comes to mind.

    Having gone through a depression myself I know how important it’s been for my mental health to actually focus on the pain, dive right into the heat and fire of it; to understand the causes, the triggers, and mechanisms before moving on. How else are we supposed to move past the pain and grow into ourselves? No pain, no gain.

    As Cynthia pointed out, the key lies in a healthy balance. In this as in all things.

    1. You are correct in saying that just turning your focus away is not safe and additionally not effective. Focus doesn’t require suffering, it merely requires attention. Fear makes us weak. Facing our pain makes the pain weak.

  6. I think this is a great idea especially if you are not in the best shape to deal with pain. What I mean is, you ignore it for a while and then face the pain when you are in better shape. I’m still up for facing the pain head on, though. You learn it the hard way. Knowing every bit of that pain will allow you to become stronger and teach yourself to get back on your feet and deal with the pain in a healthy manner.

    1. Fear of pain is often worse than the pain itself. While it is certainly true that we will be stronger if we learn from pain, we need not fear that we are too weak to face it. The mere willingness to face it is enough.

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