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When Sudden and Unexpected Pain Tested My Own Advice

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I live with chronic pain from a neurological movement disorder called dystonia. The other day I hurt my back above and beyond normal. In fact, I actually experienced severe pain unlike anything I have in a long time! It happened totally out of the blue while my father and I were at a basketball game at the local university.

About 15 minutes after the game began, I turned to my right to say something to my dad. All of a sudden, I had searing pain shoot like a lightning bolt from the center of my spine radiating all over my back. It literally took my breath away.

I was blindsided, so my initial reaction was panic (I am used to dealing with chronic pain as a way of life, but this was quite different). Then I thought I might have just temporarily tweaked something and it would probably just go away (it felt like a charley horse in my spine).

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Fear took over because this was the exact spot in my body that began to contract/spasm when I first developed my most severe symptoms of dystonia almost 20 years ago. My heart began to race with fear and my breathing became very rapid and shallow; a true fight or flight response.

My dad asked if I wanted to leave, but my concern was moving more and making it worse because we had quite a few stairs to go down and a long walk to the parking lot in cold weather. My body was in too much trauma. I needed to sit a bit longer to see if it would get a little better. I also needed to calm my worried mind the best I could for the walk to the car. I knew if I was in rushed panic mode, my muscles would contract more and make it worse.

So here I was in horrible pain with several thousand fans screaming and going cheering. Talk about testing my ability to relax in a boisterous, highly stimulating environment in the wake of severe pain that came on in an instant!

In my mind I went over all of the things I knew were important to do in that moment, panic being the last thing. I looked straight ahead watching the game, very passively, and mindfully focused on my breath. I said calming affirmations and a few prayers, and I visualized my body at rest and peace.

If I resisted the pain, my body would have seized up more than it was, so I had to let go and find the rhythm of my breath. I basically went stoic; totally within the pain to find peace. This may sound counterintuitive because we typically want to run from pain, but this usually just makes the pain worse. I had to sit with it.

It helped about 10 to 15% in terms of pain reduction, but my mind calmed a lot more than that, which was the difference maker for me to get to the car when I felt ready to leave. My goal was to make it to the car without getting worse. That’s why I decided to stay versus run home, which was my initial reaction out of fear. I knew that panicking and running would make things worse, so I took things in small steps.

I mentally prepared myself for the walk to the car doing all the things mentioned above. I then had my dad wait until I got comfortable in the car before he began driving so I could prepare myself for the movement of the vehicle. When I got home, I did a few things; ice, heat, massage and trigger point work, but mainly just lying down focusing on my breath. I also tried to get lost watching a peaceful nature show.

The next two days I cancelled all of my plans and did nothing but rest on ice and heat, do lots of relaxation breathing, meditation and visualization. I loaded up on anti-inflammatory supplements and just laid on my back. Basically, I pretty much zoned out spending most of the time lying flat as a pancake.

Although most of this was very boring, I made it my priority to strictly focus on self-care so I would be functional as soon as possible. I took care of myself without guilt, something that is very hard for me and others to do, but absolutely essential! About 72 hours later, I was back to normal. Well, my normal baseline of symptoms I have with dystonia. Not the screaming pain I was in.

I find it really ironic that I experienced this, because the day before I wrote something in my blog about not reacting emotionally to pain and other difficult life experiences. To be honest (and I know this sounds ridiculous), I was kind of grateful to have the opportunity to see just how much I would be able to follow my own advice in the midst of trauma. I was able to and it really helped.

Having practiced all of the things I mentioned above for years (relaxation breathing, meditation, visualization, etc.) it better prepared me for this moment. However, I have been out of practice lately so this experience was a wake up call! It reminded me that I needed to do more mental relaxation activities on a regular basis.

This experience affirmed for me just how much our emotional reaction to pain and any adverse condition we experience in life can either help or hurt us, and just how powerful it is to go within and not resist the pain. When we add fear and stress to fear and stress, it is a recipe for disaster, meaning it can hurt us more than we already are. This is exactly what I did not do, which I know prevented the situation from being much worse that it could have been.

Whenever you are in pain, especially above and beyond what is normal, please be mindful of how you respond to it. It will always determine how much worse it may get and how quickly or slowly you may recover from that particular event. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Getty image via Koldunova_Anna

Originally published: June 18, 2019
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