Monday, October 25, 2010


I have been thinking about pain. Maybe I’ve been thinking about it because I have been experiencing it. For at least two months, I have had a deep persistent burning ache in my left shoulder. I can’t sleep on my left side. When walking my 8 pound dog, I now only use the right arm to hold the leash. (In my defense, she is quite a handful.)

A tear? I doubt it.

Tendinitis or bursitis? Maybe.

A tweaked nerve? Who knows.

Simple rotting of middle-aged tissues? This strikes me as a distinct possibility.

Over the last twenty years of committed physical activity, a number of minor inconveniences have peppered my day-to-day. Sesamoiditis in my foot. Some floaties in my knee, apparently leftover from my exploits in the womb, which required a little scoping. The garden variety of pulls and strains. Most have cleared up on their own.

As I recently considered making an appointment with my doctor, I came upon Ron Siegel’s chapter (in The Mindfulness Solution) entitled “Beyond Managing Symptoms: Transforming Pain and Stress-Related Medical Problems.” His major point is that pain has at least two components: the physical and the mental/emotional. The two are tightly entwined. I KNEW this… but reading it in the midst of my personal experience made it more real.

Sometimes, Siegel says, pain begins as a physical insult to the body. In many cases, a second insult is to the mind as the injured begins to overlay the physical experience with some gymnastics inside the mind (such as interpretation and fear and dread). This, then, feeds back into the body, contributing to tension and tightening and protecting. A cycle begins that can extend the reach of the original injury.

This resonated with me. I walked by a large glass window the other day and secretly surveyed myself. (You know you do it, too). I was struck by how my left should appeared hunched up, almost to my ear. I tried to relax it but when this failed, I realized that I needed to use my right hand to push my shoulder down. This, of course, hurt. Immediately, I felt fear sidle up, like an old rival (I thought "how long will this continue?" "will it last forever?" "am I doomed?"). As I wallowed in the fear, my shoulder began creeping its way back toward my ear lobe.

Siegel notes that many people begin to favor their painful part, using it less and less until it begins to atrophy. The physical pain and the psychological pain meld together into one conglomeration that is no longer subject to rationality. He argues that healing often involves pushing through pain (once given the doctor’s all clear) to regain physical mobility and circulation. Healing requires some discomfort.

I can’t help but draw a parallel to other areas of my life. Soft, painful parts, not in my body but in my psyche. Parts that I hide and built thick walls to protect from discomfort. I am not sure how my shoulder nor my tender emotional parts are going to react to some tough love. But something has to change.


Katie said...

great post, Angela, and very relevant for me, too. I hope things sort out with your shoulder soon!

Angela Wiley said...

Thanks, Katie. If things don't sort out soon, I hope I manage better until they do.