There is an unavoidable tragic aspect to life. We will all experience the loss of loved ones, illness, and tragedies of various kinds and to varying degrees. As the Buddha said, in life there is suffering. No sugarcoated truth here; he was just stating one of the unavoidable facts of life. However, this is not the end of the story, it is just the beginning.
One of the greatest challenges of dealing with chronic illness is the feeling of isolation and aloneness, and experiencing something that so few understand. Many more people deal with chronic illness and pain than most people would imagine. There is also the challenge of experiencing something that you have little or no control over, which can elicit feelings of fear, rage, depression, and victimhood. One also becomes more vulnerable to the darker impulses of the mind as it struggles to adapt to the day-to-day realities of what often feels overwhelming.
Notwithstanding the necessity of caring for your health and physical well-being to the best of your ability, what I want to address here is the psychological aspect of prolonged illness and/or pain. It is very important to look closely at the difference between the body’s experience of pain and illness and the mind’s reaction to it. It is the mind’s reactions and the emotions that they trigger that are often more challenging than the physical experience of pain or illness itself, because the mind’s responses are optional.
Most of the ways that the mind responds to prolonged pain and illness elicit the fight-or-flight response in the brain. This response, which takes place in the most primitive part of our brain, underlies almost all of the emotional turmoil associated with prolonged pain and illness. It is the mind saying no to what is being experienced, while simultaneously trying to run away from it. There is nowhere to run to, because the perceived threat is not occurring outside of our bodies, it is occurring inside of our minds. The good news is that the mind and the emotions that it elicits are changeable.
The practice that is essential when dealing with the fight-or-flight mechanism of the mind is, first of all, to notice when it is happening and take immediate action to counter it.
1. Notice when the fight-or-flight response is happening. The symptoms that it has triggered are fear, anger, anxiety, resentment, defeatism, victimhood, and rampant negative thinking, to name a few.
2. Once you have noticed the fight-or-flight response is taking place, stop and take several conscious deep breaths. You are beginning to go against the tide of the fight-or-flight response, so you may experience some inner resistance to doing even this first step. Nonetheless, take the time to take a few conscious breaths. This will begin to biologically counter the fight-or-flight response in the brain. It will help the brain to reset its response to physical and emotional challenge.
3. Notice the negative thoughts that the mind is generating. Also notice that it is the negative thoughts that are generating the emotional turmoil. Pain and exhaustion are direct experiences, while emotional turmoil is a secondary reaction. It’s an add-on that has the power to elicit many reactive emotions. So take the time to notice that this secondary reaction is being generated by negative thinking.
4. Acknowledge that, while the pain or illness may be unavoidable, the resistance to it is optional and happens in your mind. Ask yourself, “Is it absolutely necessary for me to resist what is happening right now? What would it feel like to let go of these resisting thoughts?”