Everyone has a good reason for ignoring an impending crisis. We ignore it and then we are surprised (and often insulted) when it shows up! It seems that most of us have to learn how to solve our painful problems through experience, and not through observational learning.
Take my Dad, for instance. He suffered a heart attack ten years ago. He was in his sixties, and had already significantly outlived his father and grandfather who both had died of heart attacks at younger ages.
His heart pains started Sunday night. It took him until 5 a.m. to call an ambulance. Knowing him, he had to have been in excruciating pain by that
I’m sure he tried to ignore his symptoms because he wanted to uphold his duties to work and family. I’m certain you know many people like that. I mean, he’s a smart guy. He certainly knew the warning signs for heart attacks, yet he ignored them.
Pain is a Warning Sign That We Ignore
We all do the same, and particularly when it comes to pain. Pain is a warning sign. The message is usually simple: Stop. There’s a problem. Fix it.
But we don’t stop. Most of us just pop some pain relievers and keep going. In fact, that’s the culturally appropriate thing to do. Because only pansies actually stop, right?
My Dad’s had another heart attack, this year. It was quite different. In the intervening ten years he had changed his life and health significantly through excellent attention to diet — and honestly probably also through an obsession with making seriously green smoothies and gallons of his own hot pepper and veggie-packed salsa that he ate religiously every week. He was on zero medication and was thriving.
This last time he did not ignore pain. He knew the signs and called the ambulance much
earlier. But much earlier still allowed for many hours of refusing to see what reality was.
How many of us do this very same thing when we are in pain (whether physical or psychological)?!
We want to use our willpower to change reality. Doesn’t work much does it?
Dad wrote off multiple signs of trouble because he “couldn’t possibly” be having another heart attack. His indigestion must have been a bad batch of spinach. Angina pains just went away and could be ignored. Finally, pain got his attention. That’s what pain is designed to do, and we ignore it at our peril.
Pain is a Signal
My point is this: Pain is a signal, a signal that needs attention. Pain isn’t just there for
character growth — it’s there because something is wrong. So instead of popping a pain-reliever and going on with your life, be bold and check out the problem. This is true whether the pain is primarily physical or psychological (and they are highly connected!)
The area of pain: acute and chronic pain – is vast, highly researched, and complex. I want to focus on recent findings in the area of pain and resilience.
Resilience has three parts. The first part is about not giving up on the problem, but instead finding solutions that help. These solutions may not get rid of the problem entirely, but they will provide a trampoline that pushes you upward.
Resilience is Not Resistance
Resilience is not resistance. Resistance (not a bad thing at all) is preventing negative consequences of a stressor whereas resilience is recovering after experiencing those negative consequences.
Much of resilience has to do with having good physical resources. These come from paying attention to your physiological functioning and by this I mean making sure that 1) you get enough sleep (please note: In most cases, 7 1/2 hours is not enough and no matter what fantasies you tell yourself, it’s not close enough to 8 to make it okay), that 2) you eat nutritiously enough (this means plenty of fruits and vegetables every day), and that 3) you get enough exercise.
As humans we tend to think we can operate on Not Enough and still be okay through our inherent grit. As if somehow the magic fairy will make it so we don’t really need to pay attention to all three (eating, sleeping, exercise).
But the truth is that if you have good physiological functioning, you are providing your brain, gut and self with enough nutrients to function optimally. And better functioning is what you need to develop resilience.
Research tells us that people with resilience are people who feel that what they do will have an impact (Psychosomatics, 2011 May-Jun;52(3):199-209). Terms like self-efficacy, internal locus of control, mastery, hope and determination all basically mean that the person thinks he or she can do the behaviors that will actually change their outcomes.
Don’t give up now. These qualities don’t just fall out of the sky and only land on special
people. You can develop them. They are like muscles. Go to the gym (metaphorically) and get them.
People with better social support tend to have better resilience (ibid). Learning how to
make and keep friends and family is another set of muscles you can work on.
Resilience and Bouncing Back
A second part of resilience is the idea of being able to bounce back. Central to this mindset is believing that there is indeed a solution. You can find countless people who will tell you that they never gave up trying different solutions until they finally hit on something that worked. This is the essence of optimism – it’s simply continuing to work on solving problems without getting stuck in the emotional draggage (like baggage, only the drowning kind). Instead of thinking that you should hit on the solution within the first 10 trials, rather think about it more long term and keep working to solve the problem.
But, you say, really? Every day for the rest of my life? It sounds exhausting!
It won’t take the rest of your life — and it especially won’t if you actually do this thing where you sleep enough, eat right and exercise as best as you can. Give yourself the resources to feel better.
Additionally: change your thoughts. Optimism is a huge part of resilience. It’s a crucial piece to dealing with pain. “Optimist: Someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it’s a cha-cha.” (Robert Brault, quoted to me by Mark Doney). This is a profoundly useful way of thinking. It prevents us from catastrophizing, which in turn helps us better marshal our resources to face adversity and pain. In addition, optimism is associated with reduced pain. Bonus.
Resilience Doesn’t Mean Back to Normal
The third part of resilience is the idea that although you might have recovered from the stressor (bounced back), your life is nonetheless not back to “normal.”
Rather, your life is improved.
Improved doesn’t mean you won the lotto, but it does mean that you are functioning better, your resistance to future stressors is higher, and you have benefitted from the entire experience. I can think of several painful experiences I’ve had that I wouldn’t trade for the world. They were the best path to learning what I needed to learn most.
People vary quite a bit when it comes to how they respond to stress. For example, some people develop post-traumatic stress symptoms and some don’t. Current research is using neuro-imaging techniques to investigate the neurobiological basis of resilience. Scientists are finding that people with more efficient processing and regulation abilities are those with better resilience (Front Behav Nbeurosci.
2013 May 7;7:39).
What is brain efficiency? Although there are plenty of long-winded answers, one way to think of brain efficiency is use of energy. An efficient brain can get more out of the same amount of energy. That is to say, people who need less brain energy to manage their emotions and reactions to an event are more efficient, and more likely to be resilient. Probably they also have enough energy left over to maintain some optimism!
Let me again point out that good nutrition, sleep and exercise are what underlies your energy and brain efficiency. (I know! It’s like there’s a hidden message I’m pushing over and over!)
Research also tells us that the optimal life is not pain free. Instead, a certain amount of adversity is necessary for well-being. Somewhat like the classic U-shaped curve for optimal amounts of anxiety, there’s a similar curve for adversity. Too much and too little are not as good as a moderate amount. Performance is improved with moderate anxiety, and life is improved with moderate adversity (Psychol Sci 2013, May 14).
Think about it this way. How many interesting people have you met who have led lives lacking in adversity? None? I thought so.
My Dad’s resilience resulted in his improved health after his first heart attack and subsequent triple bypass. He figured out what the problems were and he solved them. As the doctor told him at the time of his most recent heart attack, “You’re in great shape for a ’38 model!” No diabetes, no problems with blood pressure, nothing that would indicate poor health. Instead of giving up after the attack of ten years ago, he grabbed hold of life and, well, he made salsa. So even though he outlasted the grafts that were implanted 10 years ago, he sailed through this next heart attack with flying colors and was in much better shape than he might have been.
One study that looked at 87 adults with chronic pain found that resilience predicts mental health related quality of life and had a bigger impact on the likelihood of depression than did pain severity. People with resilience were less likely to become depressed, even when they had more severe pain (Nurs Health Sci 2012 Dec; 14(4):508-13). But before you sniff at this, realize also that these people with resilience did not merely view the world with rose-colored glasses. Their perceptions weren’t different from those without good resilience.
This is important. This means that you – yes, even YOU – can feel better, get better, and benefit from pain. You just have to decide to start solving the problem. If draggage is keeping you down, ask for good, competent help.
Part of solving pain is paying attention to it, identifying the problem and doing what you can to solve it. But even better, we are finding out that learning from pain is not just an old wives’ tale to make you feel better. It really can be beneficial.
Plus you’ll be a heck of a lot more interesting to talk to when you’re 80.