Living with Pain and Stress: Your Worst Habit May Surprise You

elisha goldsteinEditor’s note: Elisha Goldstein, PhD, is the bestselling author of The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life. His continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT on March 28. This event, free to GoodTherapy.org members, is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.

One of the irrefutable truths of life is not only that there will be death and taxes, but also stress and pain. For all kinds of adaptive purposes, our brains are wired to tag stress and pain as negative experiences and trigger us to avoid it. We do this through a variety of behaviors, such as checking out on our smartphones, eating, drinking, shopping, watching too much television, or even checking out of our relationships. But these habits are all secondary to the primary bad habit that disconnects us from our pain and stress.

What is it?

Thinking.

The first thing our brains do when there is anything aversive in our internal or external environment is manifest a snap judgment that this is bad, wrong, unfair, etc. Only after this occurs does our nervous system jump to attention and begin to affect our bodies in a way that amplifies our stress. As this feedback loop between the mind and body continues, eventually it becomes overwhelming and we check out through our habitual, avoidant, numbing behaviors.

Ultimately, what we practice and repeat becomes automatic. This habitual practice only leads to a degradation of the self-awareness necessary for healing ourselves.

One of my favorite quotes that points to this is by Rumi: “Don’t turn your gaze away. Look toward the bandaged place, that’s where the light enters.”

One of the primary messages in The Now Effect is that while we can never catch these snap judgments, any moment is an entry point to breaking out of that unhealthy feedback loop and starting to pay attention to what matters.

This puts us more in touch with choice and gives us that internal locus of control that is the opposite of anxiety and depression. If what we practice and repeat becomes automatic, then we can train the brain to get increasingly better at noticing this loop, disconnecting from it and applying what we need in any given moment.

If we look to Rumi’s quote, he says the bandaged place is where the light enters. When we begin to come down from our busy minds and learn how to hold the pain with a curious, loving awareness, we start to recognize that everything is going to be OK.

What would the days, weeks, and months ahead look like if our brains were programmed to be more mindful when this loop was operating and to apply what we needed in any given moment? What would it be like if there were more moments of, “It’s going to be OK”?

What an amazing gift this is.

Be on the lookout for this instant reaction to discomfort and play with turning toward it and leaning into it with more mindfulness.

Below is a short video from The Now Effect that can guide you through a process of welcoming your pain.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Elisha Goldstein, PhD, therapist in Santa Monica, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jeremy

    Jeremy

    February 19th, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    I find that trying to be of the moment and figuring out exactly what triggers those pain reactions works pretty well for me. I am not saying that it helps to stop the pain but it makes me more aware of what causes it which in turn helps me think a little more about the things that I can then do to prevent that later on.

  • Brooke

    Brooke

    February 20th, 2014 at 7:59 AM

    I know that the avoidance is what feels good in the moment but eventually all of the voiding is going to bring you right back to square one, with you never having properly dealt with all that it is that you wish to avoid.

  • jara

    jara

    February 21st, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    it may not be the wisest thing to do, to run, but it might be the safest thing for you to do until you have a plan in motion to deal with the stress in a more comfortable way for you. confronting things head on before you are actually ready can too be a disaster.

  • Rose

    Rose

    February 23rd, 2014 at 10:55 AM

    I have been wrestling with the issues you discuss here since childhood, as I saw from a young age many people and situations around me that did NOT turn out ‘ok’- mental illness, terminal medical issues, suicide, abandonment, emotional abuse, etc. After seeing and experiencing such realities of life and how the majority of people in this world don’t get what they want or need, and that the pain of life will just keeps coming, how do we ‘welcome’ this type of existential pain? How do we deal with the reality that we have so little control in life and that while we can’t control our feelings, we are supposed to control our actions? I still have not found any useful or satisfactory answers to any of these questions, but would very much like to!

  • Gigi

    Gigi

    February 24th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    since when is thinking such a bad thing? unless I guess you get stuck in this continuing cycle of negativity, and then once you think about that too long then naturally you are going to be brought down by it

  • Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

    Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

    March 13th, 2014 at 7:55 PM

    That’s precisely it Gigi. It’s also particularly unhelpful when the snap judgments get us stuck in our bad habits of avoidance and numbing.

  • Joel

    Joel

    February 24th, 2014 at 4:14 AM

    I would just add to the author’s article that I think it is helpful for avoidant personalities to learn life skills like boundary setting, saying “no”, being able to self-soothe and self-validate, self-care ( such as being able to create safe space for yourself when you get thrown a loop or experience loss), face conflict head on/ stick up for ourselves, etc. I think a lot of us run from reality because we’ve never learned or been taught how to deal with it. For some of us ( particularly for those of us who grew up in violent households) identifying our /with our own reality was just simply not safe to do…and a pattern of abdicating authorship gets cemented…at the time because our survival depends on it. It is hard to break this cycle but ultimately something we have to do…if we want to stop the backlog of pain and despair from growing. I hope we all find the support and resources we need to learn to live in and deal with reality, as well as find safe space to grieve our losses.

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