Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Throughout our lives, we will all experience various sorts of pain. Whether it be emotional, mental, or physical, going through discomfort is not uncommon, and it is something that we all can relate to. However, although we may all experience similar pains, the amount we experience suffering varies greatly from person to person. Many times different experiences can induce different interpretations — such as how a deep-tissue massage, hard workout, or psychological challenge can be considered “painful” yet, at the same time, pleasurable, and other circumstances, such as getting a shot or burning yourself, are considered just plain painful. In the former examples, we psychologically “suffer” much less than in the latter, because we are experiencing things we are willing to experience and therefore, we are not in a state of resistance. However, when we are put into situations where all we want to do is change our unchangeable reality, that is when we suffer. By trying to escape our pain, we only exaggerate our suffering since suffering can be defined as the psychological discomfort that comes from wanting to end pain while not being able to do so. Therefore, the degree to which we suffer is not contingent on how much pain we experience, but by how much we resist it.
Pain, by itself, is not the enemy. In an editorial published by the International Association for the Study of Pain, authors K.J.S. Anand and Kenneth D. Craig simply address pain as an early-developed mechanism to respond to tissue damage. Pain provides a warning sign when damage is occurring, and without it, we would be numbly destroying our bodies. Suffering, on the other hand, is the mental response to pain. If our response is one of discomfort and anxiousness, we increase the amount that we feel that we are suffering through our situation. In the medical field, Dr. Eric J. Cassel notes that in his experience patients report more suffering “when they feel out of control, when the pain is overwhelming, when the source of the pain is unknown, when the meaning of the pain is dire, or when the pain is chronic.” For example, patients who were told their pain was from sciatica, a very well-known and treatable problem, were able to sufficiently manage their pain with small doses of medicine. However, the same patients who were later informed that their pain stemmed from a malignant disease required increasingly more medication to feel the same amount of relief. Feeling out of control of their situation caused the patients to feel more discomfort and hopelessness and therefore they were less able to psychologically cope with their pain, increasing the amount that their symptoms made them “suffer”.
Researchers have also discovered that solely the dreaded anticipation of pain can increase our brain’s sensory activity, heightening our perception of discomfort, and therefore, our suffering. In one study, participants who viewed a needle approaching their finger rather than a Q-tip experienced a greater change in their alpha-band activity, which is associated with heightened cognitive arousal and mental effort. This increase in arousal led to them reporting greater unpleasantness to electric shocks that were administered at the same time the hypothetical needle/Q-tip would have touched their finger. Therefore, by trying to avoid pain or resist its presence, the participants become more reactive to subsequent stimuli, making their pain seem stronger and more distressing than it actually was.
The same principles apply outside of the medical field and laboratories and into our everyday lives. When we fear uncomfortability or worry that we might not be able to manage our situation, we often attempt to avoid any pain while simultaneously amplifying our discomfort. Alexis Pappas, an Olympic distance runner, encapsulates this truth perfectly as she writes about the maturity of her running career in her article My Pal, Pain. At first, she feared pain, even agonized for days over the possibility of impending discomfort, but eventually, she realized that the pain she detested was a crucial tool in helping her achieve her ultimate goals. Without it, she could never get to where she wanted to go. So, she embraced it. She writes:
“I resolved to be similarly civil with pain. Before my races and big workouts, I consciously shifted my mental energy from dreading upcoming discomfort to simply recognizing that pain will always appear in slight variations of itself, and I should try to greet it politely.”
She didn’t try to avoid it, nor deny it. She accepted it. And by doing so, she relieved herself from the unnecessary anxiousness and dread that often drowned out her desire to run. When she could accept the pain, she could see beyond it. She could see the beauty of the present workout and the glimmer of her professional running dreams a little more clearly. She could arrive at a place where the pain didn’t shock her because she expected it. She was comfortable being uncomfortable.
And, even more importantly, her embracement of pain is not secluded to physical sensations. She takes a similar attitude to her emotional and mental struggles, such as the emotions of sadness and anger. Instead of trying to resist her current state, she allows herself to be with the sensations so that she can handle them from a clearer, calmer perspective, rather than one of complete denial or frustration.
This, this is what we should strive for. Pain is unavoidable, and so we might as well welcome it — in whatever variation it may take — with open arms. Pain can be beautiful. Pain can make you stronger. Pain can save your life. But by pinning pain as the enemy we run away from the very thing that is trying to help us. It’s time to stop making a “pain” a scary word or something that we need to try to eliminate completely; instead, we must acknowledge it’s true purpose: to signal us into action, to let us know things are changing, to awaken us… and by embracing the presentness of our pains and acknowledging its voice, we will realize nothing is really that painful after all.
Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.
More on Mental Health on Campus:
What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need
If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help
The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis