Have you felt pain today? I hope so. No, I don’t wish you harm or want you to suffer but it’s time we all start embracing pain a little more. Let me explain…
In my mind, there’s a difference between pain and suffering. There’s too much suffering in the world today and too little pain.
Suffering happens when you are in anguish, like when you have been assaulted mentally or physically. Suffering happens in wars, in natural disasters, with serious injuries and diseases. Yet suffering doesn’t lead to a reward… (but that can be up to you to change).
Pain, on the other hand, leads to growth, gains, resilience, wisdom and expertise.
Our modern world has dismissed the value of pain and ushered in a tidal wave of convenience which blocks our path to the benefits of pain. When convenience is the default in all areas of our lives, it makes us reliant on convenience as a crutch. We are no longer able to handle the ups and downs of life well. In fact, we might even create pain to substitute for the absence of the natural occurrence of it.
Strange. Yes. But, it has been studied and well described. Humans need challenge, adversity, discomfort to become more vital, more robust, more alive and well. If we don’t get enough of it, it seems we create it. A lack of opportunity to be strengthened by the challenges in life has been linked to things like chronic pain, autoimmune disease, and depression – to name just a few.
The word pain scares people. Usually, we feel like we want to avoid pain at all costs but this is more of an issue with language than the reality we live in.
Embracing Pain is Good
Here are some examples of how pain helps us and might not even feel bad…
- Pain lets us know that we are pushing our physical well-being and allows us to assess if it safe to continue. Note: the dosage is key here. As I will describe in the rest of the article, feeling and enduring some pain is good but too much pain is a message to stop. This is something we need to work out individually – with the help of other’s experiences and resources.
- Working out creates pain but many love the “burn” because they know it leads to benefits – increased fitness, better musculature, mobility, etc.
- Being cold can feel painful but it is also instrumental in creating a strong immune system, aiding in strengthening vascular tone and has been linked to an increased lifespan
- Fasting can result in painful feelings in the stomach and elsewhere but it has been shown to clean up cells through autophagy and apoptosis, while linked to greater longevity.
I realize the word pain has negative associations. Perhaps, my examples above would be easier to digest if instead of the word pain, I used the word discomfort. That’s semantics. The bottom line is that going beyond convenience and your comfort zone leads to good things.
The term hormesis captures this idea really well…
…hormesis is a dose response phenomenon characterized by a low dose stimulation, high dose inhibition, resulting in either a J-shaped or an inverted U-shaped dose response. Such environmental factors that would seem to produce positive responses have also been termed “eustress“.
I actually like the term eustress better.
It captures the idea that the appropriate amount of stress (pain, discomfort, etc.) leads to a stronger and more resilient constitution.
If we don’t always make immediate adjustments to feel comfortable, like changing the thermostat to keep the temperature just right, sitting in the plushest chair that doesn’t require us to use our muscles to support our core or drive the two blocks we could’ve walked instead, then we actually improve our well-being.
Our culture pushes convenience and the marketplace is constantly being filled with the introduction of new and improved ways to make life easier… but in truth, these often have the opposite effect.
Besides being pulled to buy more stuff we don’t need, that stuff is also the thing that makes us weak. A big reason we evolved and thrived as a species is that we were capable of tolerating, adapting and strengthening ourselves against the stresses that life threw at us. That’s the basis of evolution.
If we remove all these stresses, we will either lose our ability to adapt or we will, intentionally or unintentionally, create new ones ourselves. From modern diseases of abundance (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.) to manufactured psychological drama, we need to face challenges.
Wouldn’t you rather that challenge be something that led to a better you?
Embracing and adapting to the cold or tolerating the discomfort of physical exertion or actually feeling hunger pains, will all lead to better health, as well as greater fortitude in mind, body, and spirit.
By seeking out, or allowing the natural, opportunities for eustress/discomfort/pain/hormesis, we can improve our lives and avoid unnecessary suffering. When we take control of our ability to handle these tough situations, we become tougher.
Embracing Pain: 5 Ways to Start Unleashing Superpowers
Embracing pain with the cold
Try some cold thermogenesis. Whether you are turning your shower to cold for the last 15 seconds or lying in an ice bath, the cold has many benefits for the vascular system, immune system, endocrine system, mood and more. Need to know how to start so you can become cold adapted? Check this article and video out.
Working through the pain with exercise
“No pain, no gain” is a famous motto used in the fitness industry. While I think this attitude goes too far, there’s a certain truth in it. We need to feel the right dose of pain/discomfort to make gains in our fitness capacity, musculature, flexibility, etc. Progressive overload is a tried and true method to enhance physical capability. It’s not comfortable. Want more details, read this. Strong bodies don’t rest comfortably all day long – they sprint, lift, push, bend, stretch and sweat!
Tolerating pain with time-restricted eating
Feeling hungry is not pleasurable but it does give you an appreciation for food and gratitude for the abundance of its availability. It is also an opportunity for your digestive system, endocrine system and many other parts of your body to get a restorative window of time which leads to greater health correlated with longevity. The trouble with snacking is often ignored but it is not an age-old human practice. Some of the issues I describe here. Try to wait more than 3 or 4 hours between feedings – it has a load of benefits.
Seeking pain with reduced chair sitting
“Sitting is the new smoking” captures the deleterious effects of constant sitting. The fact that our chairs are so supportive and comfortable also add to the weakening effects of this practice. I wrote an article detailing the issues with sedentary time and some easy ways to overcome them here. Try to stand more, sit on the floor, change positions, use a Swedish ball as a chair so you need to support your core yourself.
Embracing pain with barefoot time
The human foot is absolutely amazing. This relatively small thing can balance our whole bodies above it. It is a mechanical marvel that is designed to interact with the ground beneath us. Always wearing shoes interferes with its potential and can result in the weakening of muscles from misuse, the development of suffering from misalignment issues and a disconnect from our environment. Try going barefoot, wear flat shoes (no heel), or minimalist shoes – adjust slowly to protect yourself from injury. (Read Katy Bowman’s Whole Body Barefoot for an excellent resource on the matter). You’ll notice the difference and it feels good!!
There are more ways to leverage eustress. I’m sure you have some ideas of your own. I’d love to hear them so I can up my pain game and we can all be a little more super human! Please share…
Excited to start embracing pain? You might want to read this too: A Problem of Modernity