How do you react to painful and challenging situations in life? Do you start become reactive, or are you able to respond in a way that helps you heal and stay connected to life?
Staying open in the face of pain is an essential part of the healing process. Life is a combination of joy and pain. As humans, our tendency is to avoid pain and move towards pleasure. The truth is that we can’t choose one over the other. Pain isn’t the problem; it’s our tendency to react to and resist the pain that creates prolonged and intense suffering.
Our instinctual reaction to pain is to fix it and move on. Sometimes when unpleasantness, hurt, or trauma happens to us or loved ones, our immediate response is to jump into “fix-it” mode. After all, we live in a society that offers solutions to all of life’s problems. We’re constantly bombarded by ads telling us that the answer to our problems is just a phone call away. There are ads for medicines, exercises, and varied approaches to improve your love life, memory, energy, and more. If you are depressed, you’re advised to take the latest drugs to help reverse the tide. If you’re a smoker, you can wear a patch that helps you kick the habit.
I’m not dismissing the usefulness and need for these medicines and approaches. Rather, I’ve come to realize that the challenges we face in life can’t be approached with a quick fix or a Band-Aid solution. Instead, what helps us heal and stay connected to life is our ability to approach pain with presence, openness, compassion, and acceptance. It’s when we open our heart to ourselves and each other that we create space for healing and growth to happen.
In order to heal we truly need to be present, to accept what is happening, and to keep our minds and hearts open to what is happening in the moment.
In life things don’t always go according to plan. This happened to me recently. About three months ago, my husband and I were planning a double celebration. It was our 23rd year wedding anniversary as well as his birthday. We had it all planned out; we were going to dine at a favorite restaurant, enjoy each other’s company, and share appreciation for all the ways in which our relationship had grown and blossomed over the years. Our plans were set for the next day. I remember feeling excited and looking forward to this celebration. Well, you know the saying about how the best-laid plans often go astray? Our plans went out the window and it really rocked my world.
What happened next was the most challenging experience we’ve faced in our 23 years of marriage. My husband woke me up at 5:30 a.m. complaining of intense pain in his chest, arm, shoulder, and neck. While I’m not a medical doctor, I know that these signs are serious and can be symptoms of a heart attack. This was unexpected and shocking, as my husband is a healthy 49-year-old man with no history of heart disease. Initially, he didn’t want to go to the hospital and wanted to wait to see if the pain abated, but I knew that getting him to the hospital as soon as possible was critical; this could be a life and death situation. As I was going through this I could feel a sensation of numbness flood through my body and emotions. It was like my body, mind, and heart went into survival mode.
Once we got to the hospital, the staff rushed him into the ER and treated him as a heart attack victim. Witnessing all this was heartbreaking, as it was difficult to stand by and watch as the staff administered different medicines to try and stabilize his condition and reduce the pain. While I could stay close by, I was asked to keep the area around him clear so that they could attend to him. It was really painful to watch him suffer without being able to comfort him. He was in and out of consciousness and I remember feeling dizzy as I faced the unknown. Worry, anxiety, and terror filled my mind, body, and heart. I was no longer in survival mode, I was in reaction mode.
Shifting from reaction to response requires awareness, acceptance, and a loving presence. Initially, I was caught up in thoughts, emotions, and stories about a future without my husband. My surroundings faded into the background as I got trapped in reactivity. I was stuck there for quite some time. Then I had a moment of awareness. I recognized that I was getting swept up in a swirling tornado of feelings, thoughts, and stories. I became aware that what I was doing—judging, predicting, and catastrophizing—was just escalating my anxiety. This moment of awareness, this recognition and conscious shift from reactivity to response, is called mindfulness.
“ Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.”
Awareness is when we stop living in our minds and connect to the present moment. I love the term Tara Brach uses. She calls it “coming home to ourselves.” Awareness is any time you realize that you have disconnected from your surroundings and are caught up in thoughts or reactions. You’ve come home in that moment when you recognize and reconnect with your body, mind, and heart. It’s a pivotal moment where you can choose a response.
For me that pivotal moment of awareness helped me shift from reacting to responding towards what was happening in the moment. I did the only thing I could: I recognized that I couldn’t control what was happening on the outside but I could respond to what was going on inside me. I started by accepting that what I was going through was painful, and that waves of fear and resistance were coming up for me. I needed to let go of trying to control feelings and just be present to my experience. It’s what’s called “being a compassionate witness”—allowing feelings, thoughts, and stories to flow through me without judging the experience. It isn’t easy to do! It’s much easier to get caught up in reactivity than it is to stay open, present, and willing to respond in the moment.
While this was happening I stayed by his side and offered comfort in the only way I could: by staying present, holding his hand, and offering love and compassion. As the days went on I fluctuated between reacting, getting swept up in feelings of powerless, helplessness, and stories, and recognizing that I could shift into mindfully approaching the pain I was feeling with acceptance, understanding, and compassion.
In the end we found out that he didn’t actually have a heart attack. What happened to him was an uncommon occurrence: he had contracted a virus that ended up infecting his heart. Thankfully, he’s recovered completely and is in good health. This experience has helped us to deepen our connection and appreciate each moment of life.
Pain is a natural part of life. While we can dull the pain and suppress it, we can’t avoid it. What we can do is to help ourselves by approaching pain with understanding and compassion. Freedom from suffering comes when we realize that we can choose how to respond to pain. One path leads to growth and healing, the other leads to intense suffering. In the end, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about learning to make a conscious choice. When you’re caught up in reactivity and become aware that you’re reacting, you can choose to shift to a more healing and loving response.
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