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Healing by Growing Up

Pain relief through the pursuit of emotional intelligence, life balance, and peacefulness

2,000 words, published 2006, updated Jul 20th, 2013
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer, the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org, and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for sassy, skeptical, referenced analysis and a huge bibliography. I am a runner and ultimate player, and live in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. • full bioabout SaveYourself.ca

My clients and readers often refer to their severe chronic pain as “another *%$@!! growth opportunity.” It’s almost always funny, because it is so deeply true that I never get tired of agreeing with it, and yet it is incomplete — pain isn’t just an opportunity for growth. Sometimes, growth is the way out of the pain.

“Personal growth” is a self-healing strategy that I recommend as a general method of trying to cope with difficult and/or mysterious rehabilitation process. On the one hand, it can be directly relevant to the neurology and physiology of chronic pain, which routinely involves a phenomenon called “central sensitization” — an over-active alarm system that needs to be calmed and soothed. And personal growth can also be a wild goose chase — growing up isn’t easy, nor is it necessarily relevant to chronic pain. Worst of all, people often face nearly invincible hardships in their lives, problems that are going to continue to be extremely stressful almost no matter what they do.

But sometimes personal growth heals the body when all else fails … and of course it’s never a waste of time to try to grow up a little more.

What is “personal growth”? And do I have to eat granola?

It’s true, “personal growth” is a flaky-sounding bit of terminology. But it’s an important and sensible concept that I decided to get comfortable with a long time ago.

Personal growth is simply the process of increasing self-awareness and self-actualization — knowing and being more like yourself — and breaking down self-limiting behaviours at the same time.

Personal growth is more popularly known simply as “growing up” or “getting older and wiser.” And smarter. Knowledge is part of wisdom, and informed, rational confidence has great importance in managing pain.

Once a danger message arrives at the brain, it has to answer a very important question: “How dangerous is this really?” In order to respond, the brain draws on every piece of credible information — previous exposure, cultural influences, knowledge, other sensory cues — the list is endless.

Pain really is in the mind, but not in the way you think, Moseley (theConversation.com)

Why should I grow personally?

Sometimes — not always, but often enough to make it worth trying — when you embark on a personal growth “journey”, chronic pain and other mysterious or stubborn physical problems change or fade away. It may never be clear exactly why.

In any event, personal growth is something you end up doing sooner or later whether you like it or not! Pain has a way of herding people into self-improvement. You might as well take credit for it, and you might as well get started sooner rather than later. And it’s a nice perk that it can never be a waste of time — getting wiser is good! — even if it has no effect on your medical problems.

Chronic pain has forced me into the same good habits that everyone else is after. I make sure I sleep and eat well. I don't work too hard. I don't drink much. I prioritize balance. For most people, an imbalanced life means burnout in a few years time, but with chronic pain this can happen almost immediately. … I am in many ways stronger, whether I like it or not.

How chronic pain has made me happier, Heaton (RobertHeaton.com)

Pain is also an extremely personal challenge in the sense that it is private and even isolating. There’s just you and the pain, trapped together inside your skull. With most chronic pain, there are no outward signs, nothing to “prove” how much pain you’re in, not even a way to compare directly with someone else’s pain.

And pain is also a more “creatively” produced experience than most sensations are (taste, say, or smell) — because the brain’s notion of what is threatening (and therefore painful) is so lavishly multifactorial. So when Rollins said “pain is personal,” he expresses something more beautifully science-based than he might have realized. Or, knowing Rollins, perhaps he knew it quite well…

I think about the meaning of pain. Pain is personal. It really belongs to the one feeling it. Probably the only thing that is your own. I like mine.

Henry Rollins, musician, writer, and much more

How can personal growth affect health?

Everything we experience — pain included, pain especially — is an expression of who we are and who we have been. If you could magically change everything about your personality, you would become someone else and probably trade all your current problems for new ones — even some diseases and consequences of old injuries might well vanish, obsolete manifestations of your old self.

The hope of personal growth is that, if we change enough, we might just change the part of us that is hurting — without necessarily even understanding the connection. Mysterious problems sometimes just go away when we work on ourselves.

Massage therapy and other manual therapies usually can’t work if we don’t know what to aim it at, and even when we do there may be no way of getting to the root of the issue. Sometime it’s clear that my clients’ pain may be bubbling up from a deep well inside of them, and it’s going to keep coming no matter how much I try to hold it back with my hands.

Personal growth, on the other hand, is general. It has the potential to affect — and change — almost anything about you.

Rob Heaton again:

Whilst the problem is superficially a physical one, the real challenges faced by someone with chronic pain are mental. Mental state is the biggest modulator of physical pain. Things hurt more when you’re stressed or sad, and the increased pain makes you both stressed and sad. The way out of this vicious circle is a wholesale change to how you perceive fear, suffering and setbacks.

A practical example: pain, alcohol and sleep deprivation

Just as a sugary diet and lack of exercise are powerful factors in diabetes — an obvious equation we are all pretty familiar with — some habits and life patterns are also strong predictors of the chronicity and severity of pain. Smoking and sleep deprivation are good examples. Alcohol is not … at least not directly. But alcohol is both a common coping mechanism and a sleep destroyer, which does substantially worsen pain. This is the stuff of vicious cycles: pain, alcohol, sleep loss, more pain, more alcohol, more sleep loss …

What starts out as an “understandable coping mechanism” can, in time, turn you into your own worst enemy. Alcohol abuse, of course, is a common problem, and often predates pain problems, starting out as a coping mechanism for something else entirely, quite possibly the lesser of evils in the beginning, and only later, slowly, insidiously becomes the greater evil: a driver of severe chronic pain. But by that time it is a habit and an addiction so entrenched that it seems like part of the fabric of life, and with no obvious connection to the pain!

Assuming you even realize that the alcohol is a problem, it’s a difficult vicious cycle to escape, of course. It’s rare for chronic pain patients to even understand the challenge without some wise and expert counselling. However, people do sometimes succeed in quitting alcohol abuse for a wide variety of other reasons. In this way, personal growth can lead to changes that significantly improve chronic pain, without the reason for the improvement necessarily ever being understood, or even actually “curing” the problem.

Personal growth casts a wide net, and may improve or eliminate many things that were, collectively, making a relatively minor problem into a horrible one.

How to “do” personal growth

There is no one way of doing personal growth, but here are some guidelines:

Or you could take a shortcut …

Sort of.

There literally an infinite number of ways of going about personal growth. However, without a doubt, going to Haven is probably the best and easiest.

Haven is a school on Gabriola Island, on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. Founded in the 1970s by a pair of loving and creative psychiatrists, Jock McKeen and Bennet Wong, Haven now hosts many experiential workshops. Although undeniably a bit hippy dippy in tone, the place is devoted to a strong central philosophy — exemplified by the fact that they are an actual diploma-granting school for counsellors. Haven is much less “new agey” than some other famous West Coast institutions, like Hollyhock and Esalen, which basically just rent space to any motivational speaker or spiritual guru who can draw a crowd.

Haven’s founders sensibly believed that life is a fine art that must be learned — and can only be learned from other people, including people with much more experience. They first got interested in group therapy when they famously noticed that people were doing better talking to each other in their waiting room than they were in individual therapy. So, to this day, workshops at Haven are all about doing and trying things with other people — tinkering with social context, and doing it with expert input from people who have spent decades carefully observing and participating in the human experience. The best course to start with is called Come Alive, a “crash course” in a lot of their basic ideas. This is the shortcut.

Life is a fine art that must be learned — and can only be learned from other people.

And here’s another handy shortcut tip: the good news about using personal growth as a general approach to healing is that it’s not unusual for your primary health concerns to be directly associated with your biggest personal hang-up. If you go to Come Alive, for instance, you might want to think about focussing on whatever your most obvious “damage” is. This simplifies things quite a bit!

Unfortunately, it’s not always that straightforward.

The bad news

Or, to be more positive, let’s call it a hot tip, something to watch out for. There’s this terrible catch-22 in personal growth …

If you were the kind of person who could easily change the thing about you that makes you hurt, then you probably wouldn’t have the problem in the first place.

There’s a reason that people don’t routinely experience surprising recoveries from deeply intertwined psychological and physical suffering: it’s really, really difficult.

Good luck!

About Paul Ingraham

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.