Pain: Tolerance and Acceptance

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Back in a previous life, I used to coach marathon runners. This was done through a charity organization raising funds for first blood cancer research and then pediatric cancer research. My wife and I spent a couple of years mentoring and training new runners on pushing their bodies to the limit over the course of 13.1 or 26.2 miles.

One of the runners I coached told me that they had a high tolerance for pain, therefore they may be prone to pushing too far and over extending themselves. This runner had convinced themselves that their pain tolerance was such that they wouldn’t know they were hurt until it was too late.

On the surface, this makes sense. I can withstand a lot of pain, therefore I wouldn’t know I was breaking my leg until it was actually broken. However, there is a bit of fallacy in this argument. Just because you can tolerate pain does not mean that you do not nor can not recognize pain.

While you are running, you may be able to tolerate the tightness in your calves or the jabbing in your shins, but does that mean you should ignore it. The answer, simply, is no. There is a tolerance level and also an acceptance level. The two levels should not be mistaken for each other.

So, let’s talk about acceptance now. It wasn’t until recently that it occurred to me that the way human beings face pain can be summed up into two different camps. This became apparent when I took my four year old daughter to the doctor for her wellness exam and she had to get shots.

She did not want shots (who does??) and was adamant against them. However, when the time came and the nurse inserted the first syringe, she definitely cried out, but no tears. The second syringe came and went and before she knew it, she was done. A total of maybe 6 seconds had passed. When we told her it was done, she was over it. No more whining, no tears at all.

On the other hand, when I took my eight year old son to get his flu shot last year, he screamed bloody murder BEFORE the shot even got near him. And after the shot, he probably cried for a good 5 minutes.

Now, this isn’t a knock on my son, nor stating that my daughter is super tough (though she is). What I realized is that they face pain in two distinctly different ways.

My son fears not only the initial pain, but also that that pain may never ever stop. Then afterward, he still feels the memory of the pain almost as if it were still happening. Whereas my daughter fears the initial pain, but then she realizes that the pain DOES go away and moves on.

I have been told that this is the way people who suffer from migraines feel. I’ve had two in my lifetime and I can tell you that in the moment, it feels like the pain is NEVER going to stop. So, while you sit/lay there trying to get better, there’s the nagging thought that persists that you could spend the rest of your life in this pain and misery.

I’ve talked to my son about this and he confirmed my thoughts. He says that he is afraid that once he gets hurt, he will never feel unhurt again. I can imagine that this can be translated into multiple avenues of fear….and not just pain.

Do we stop ourselves from living life to the fullest because we are afraid that something might come along and completely halt our enjoyment forever, when in reality it might just pause momentarily? Do we not move forward with the fear of just being pushed back? Or can we realize that any pain, setback, bad news, negative impact, or sadness will eventually fade?

I find that I will be having conversations like this with my son and probably my daughter too. It’s time to make sure we don’t let our fear control our happiness. We only get a finite number of minutes in this life….why waste them on fear? Spend them on happiness.

Choose Happiness.