Given the option, most of us would generally prefer not to feel pain. That is the way it is meant to be.
When we are functioning well, we experience a flow of emotion within a tolerable range and we feel balanced, well, socially engaged, and able to cope. We have systems in place to maintain such a state, which is optimal for our survival and functioning. Spending too much time in a hyper- or hypoaroused state (outside of this “Window of Tolerance”) is detrimental to our physical and mental health, and can even result in death.
Pain, as unpleasant as it feels, is designed to serve a useful purpose: to warn us that something is wrong, so that we can take action which will result in a return to homeostasis. Pain is supposed to be a temporary measure; it is triggered by a situation to mobilise us for survival, then resolves once the danger has passed or the situation has changed. Emotions evolved as signals to help us survive. When we pay attention to these signals, they tell us what to do to return to safety and equilibrium.
The cost of ignoring pain
Many of us have been brought up to ignore our bodies’ signals. As children, some of us, rather than finding comfort when we were upset, angry or scared, were punished or belittled. As adults, we may therefore evaluate pain as “bad” (“I shouldn’t be feeling like this”) and look for ways to get rid of it or avoid feeling it in some way. In the context of real external threats, this makes sense. The impulse to fight or run away from danger enables us to do whatever it takes to survive, and once we are safe, our bodies return to a deactivated state.
The trouble is that when we experience the natural primary emotions themselves as threatening, there is no escape, and fighting is futile; the fight / flight response is activated, but resisting and avoiding bring no resolution. The degree of arousal therefore becomes overwhelming, and the only defence we have to resort to is the “freeze” response. Although “freeze” is meant to be a temporary survival state in mammals, human beings can have trouble getting out of it. While in this freeze state, we carry a huge ball of unprocessed energy, which lurks beneath the surface, then explodes in an uncontrolled way when triggered. In an attempt to regulate these extreme feelings, we might resort to destructive behavioural strategies, such as addictions or eating disorders or self-harming. The cause of most common mental illnesses is the failure of the stress cycle to complete.
Completing the stress cycle
The way back to good mental health is to learn how to complete stress cycles by discharging the unprocessed energy held in your body. The starting point is to learn to listen to your body’s signals and to accept them non-judgmentally – it’s ok to feel what you feel. These skills take time to learn and may seem counter-intuitive, especially in a society that largely values the intellect above feelings. When you can allow and accept your feelings, you can begin to find healthy and constructive ways of discharging them so that your body can return to its optimal state. If you have never learnt to do this, your body may be holding the energy from a number of incomplete stress cycles, and you will probably benefit from the help of a trained therapist to help you release the pent up energy safely and without feeling overwhelmed.