How Awareness Can Help Calm Your Pain

By Dr. David Hanscom, PNN Columnist

Anxiety and anger are major aspects of the chronic pain experience. In this state, your mind is full of racing thoughts and vivid imagery, and it’s hard to focus on anything but you and your pain.

They block your awareness of other’s needs. It becomes a challenge for friends, family, and coworkers – anyone – to connect with you. If you’re touchy and constantly on edge, it’s exhausting for others to be in your presence.

Having a good support system is an important part of your recovery from chronic pain because positive relationships have a calming effect. But now you are driving people away.

Awareness is a powerful and necessary tool in breaking through this barrier. What you are not aware of can and will control you.

I have found it helpful to look at awareness from four different perspectives: environmental, emotional, judgement and ingrained thought patterns.

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Environmental awareness is placing your attention on a single sensation – taste, touch, sound, temperature, etc. What you are doing is switching sensory input from racing thoughts to another sensation. This is the basis of mindfulness – fully experiencing what you are doing in the moment.

I use an abbreviated version that I call “active meditation,” which is placing my attention on a specific sensory input for 5 to 10 seconds. It is simple and can be done multiple times per day.  

Emotional awareness is more challenging. It often works for a while, but then it doesn’t. When you are suppressing feelings of anxiety, your body’s chemistry is still off and full of stress hormones. This translates into physical symptoms.

Allowing yourself to feel all of your emotions is the first step in healing because you can’t change what you can’t feel. Everyone that is alive has anxiety. It is how we survive.

Judgment is a major contributor to creating mental chaos in our lives. Dr. David Burns in his book “Feeling Good” outlines 10 cognitive distortions that are a core part of our upbringing. Some of them include:

  • Labeling yourself or others

  • “Should” thinking – the essence of perfectionism

  • Focusing on the negative

  • Minimizing the positive

  • Catastrophizing

  • Emotional reasoning

Becoming aware of these errors in thinking allows you to substitute more rational thought patterns.

Ingrained thought patterns are the most problematic to be aware of. Recent neuroscience research has revealed that thoughts, concepts and ideals become embedded in our brains and are just as real to you as the chair you are sitting in.

That is why people engage in aggressive behavior when their belief systems are challenged. We are all programmed by our past. Your thoughts and beliefs are your version of reality.

Becoming Aware of Your ‘Unawareness’

The first step in becoming aware is realizing that you are unaware. This never ends because there will always be areas of our thinking and behavior that are not consistent with the needs of the situation. 

When I look back on my life’s journey, one of the most disturbing aspects of it is realizing the extent of my unawareness. For instance, when I was in my full-blown obsessive mode, I didn’t have a clue. I recall one time when a friend referred to my “obsessive nature.”  I didn’t know what the word really meant and was certain it didn’t apply to me.

How can you tap into your unawareness? One way is to look for cues in certain behaviors and attitudes, which may mean we’re out of touch with how we’re feeling.  Some examples: 

  • Having a rigid opinion about almost anything: religion, politics, someone’s character, etc.

  • Being told you are stubborn or “not listening”

  • Interrupting someone to offer an opinion before you’ve heard theirs

  • Insisting on being right.

  • Thinking about something besides what you are doing.

  • Judging yourself or others negatively or positively.

  • Feeling anxious or angry

  • Giving advice when not asked for it

  • Thinking you are wiser than your children

  • Acting on impulse.

This list is infinite. If one or more resonates with you, it’s probably time to take a step back so that you can respond appropriately to a given person or situation. This is the essence of awareness.

Another clue of unawareness -- not listening -- is one that I discovered with others’ help. My weakness in this area became readily apparent when I attended a parents’ meeting at my daughter’s school.

I will preface this story by saying that I had always considered myself a good listener. It was one of my major personal identities. My wife has not always agreed with that viewpoint. Of course, I did not listen to her.

At the parents’ meeting, we did an exercise where we had to write down on a piece of paper a characteristic that another parent could “work on.”  We could write to two parents anonymously.

Most parents received one or two slips of paper. I received twelve (out of 18) that all said the same thing: “David, you don’t know how to listen.”  

That was a very difficult moment for me. I found it extremely hard to not become defensive. But how could I disagree with 12 people?  I came to accept that they were right, especially in retrospect. It was a trait that I truly could not see. I simply had to trust a group of people who I knew did not have an agenda and had my best interests at heart. 

After that meeting, I came to realize how not listening had interfered with my general awareness. It’s one of the central tenets of awareness: You cannot be aware if you cannot listen.

Practicing Awareness

Understanding and practicing awareness is the first step in reprogramming your brain. It’s the easiest technique to explain and the most difficult to consistently use. Environmental awareness is the foundational first step and spending as much time as possible doing “active meditation.” Regardless of where you are in your journey, being fully aware of stimuli coming into your brain will help calm you down.

When you are ready for the second level of emotional awareness, simply watch your emotions pass by and then pull yourself back into seeing, hearing and feeling, as quickly as possible. It is a little challenging, as emotions often evoke powerful reactions. Training yourself to be with these feelings instead of fighting them is a learned skill and may require some support from a professional.

The third level – judgement -- is a lifetime journey. The key is to be persistent in not judging yourself or others. A good starting point is understanding than whenever you place a positive or negative judgment on someone else, you have simply projected your view of yourself onto the other person. As you become aware of these cognitive distortions, you will be able to regain control of your life.

Remember that in the fourth level of ingrained patterns, it is impossible to see yourself through your own eyes. This is where resources such as psychologists, good friends, spouses, children, and seminars have to be utilized. The key is being willing to listen.

Becoming aware of everyone and everything around you is much more interesting and enjoyable than merely expressing and reinforcing your own views on life day in and day out.  

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Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.