A year and a half ago I started getting intense, shooting pain through my left pelvic region. I was fraught with fear, confusion, panic. I saw countless doctors. They simply couldn't figure out the source of the pain.
Fast-forward a year (and countless hours of spinning, squatting and deadlifting – oops) later and I discovered the source of my pain – a torn hip labrum.
Initially, I was hit with shock and frustration at having to restrict my regular activity regimen and prepare for hip surgery at 23.
I was worried about having to give up my job teaching spin. Angry at forfeiting the progress I’d made in the weight room. And frankly, I was in pain all the time.
Due to insurance and hospital scheduling issues, it took 6 months from that point to get my hip fixed up.
Because I was tired of wallowing in pain and self-pity, I decided to build myself a bridge and get over it (not literally – no bridge building with a busted hip).
Dealing with a torn labrum for over a year and a half limited my activity level, my capacity to work, my ability to sit down and – it was pretty damn painful.
Despite these various discomforts, the experience was a tremendous blessing.
Blessing? How could a year and a half of pain and limitation be a blessing?
Throughout the whole, messy process, I learned that pain does not have to equal suffering. I couldn’t change my hip’s condition and immediately eliminate my pain, but I could choose how to respond to the pain in my hip.
Viktor Frankl, after having survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, wrote, “Between the stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
In the space between my sensation of hip pain and my mental, emotional and physical response was my power to choose. This power became abundantly clear the longer I had to deal with discomfort.
I could choose to be miserable daily and lament my misfortune or I could choose to accept, to look forward, to find meaning so that my pain didn’t have to cause suffering.
Pain + stress = suffering. Pain + fear = suffering. Pain + self-pity = suffering. But pain, itself, doesn’t have to cause you great suffering.
Pain or discomfort doesn’t just come in the form of torn hip labrums or other physical stressors. Pain is losing your job. Pain is fighting with a loved one. Pain is grappling with guilt when you’ve made a mistake. Pain is feeling shame about yourself or your body.
Through the physical manifestation of pain, we can learn to deal with the less obvious mental, emotional, or spiritual forms of pain.
Here are some things I’ve found helpful in learning to sit with pain.
Explore the Discomfort
I often perform full body scans, where I move my attention throughout my body, noticing whatever sensations are present. I found that, when I used this technique during periods of intense hip pain, the pain was actually much more manageable than I thought. If I could allow myself to be fully present with the pain, instead of feeling anxious or angry at its existence, I could soften the tension a bit.
Fear of pain, whether physical, mental or emotional, is often far worse than the pain itself.
Raise your Awareness
Before I knew the cause of my hip pain, I was a blubbering mess. I was up all night Web MD-ing, convinced I had hernias, or cysts or cancer. Once I discovered the source of my pain, I found that I noticed it far less. It was no longer constantly pulling at my mind, begging to be attended to.
Raising your awareness can help with any source of pain or discomfort. Struggle with emotional overeating? Try taking a 60 second pause to check in with your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations when you notice an impulse to binge. This can be a critical moment that allows you to regain your equilibrium and power.
Find your Precursors to Pain
When I first started experiencing discomfort in my hip, I found that sitting hurt, that cycling hurt, that deadlifting hurt – so I had to change these activities. I used to think I had to do all of those things (to be fit or happy). Turns out, I didn't.
I got a standing desk to minimize sitting time, started walking instead of cycling, and bench-pressing instead of deadlifting (still sad about that one, but it had to happen).
The more you can raise your awareness, the more you can uncover your precursors to pain. Whether that's a stressful job, unrequited love or unaccomplished dreams, understanding your precursors to pain is a powerful step in taking action towards overcoming it.
As I wise and dear friend once said when someone remarked on her high pain tolerance, “I don’t have a high pain tolerance, I just have a high ability to sit with pain.”