Fear vs. Curiosity: New Habits for a New Year

Fear vs. Curiosity:

New Habits for a New Year

Winter 2002

Our experience of pain has a physiological root either from injury or chronic strain patterns and it can feel insulting when someone says it’s “all in your head.” However, as a feeling human being, you cannot help but have an emotional response to pain, even if initially it is the instinctual reaction of fear. If you have been living with chronic pain, your feelings about the pain can influence the response in your body.

Responding to pain with fear is instinctual, and it takes maturity and courage to respond with a new habit. Unfortunately, most human beings appear to need to experience considerable discomfort before considering a change of habit. This tendency is intensified by the illusion propagated by pharmaceutical companies and 30-minute sit-coms that there is a quick fix for everything. I know simple lifestyle changes can have profound affects, and there are documented real-life miracles, yet statistically, these are rare events. Unfortunately, once a lifestyle change has been unsuccessful, people often become discouraged at embarking on further changes. Often, there is a lack of support, knowledge and available time in the medical community for education about changing old habits and making new choices.

There is an alternative to Fear: Exploration and Curiosity! Let’s look to a child’s wisdom (you have experience here, since you were once one!) Children are infinitely curious. From infancy through the teenage years, they find a variety of ways to explore their environments, providing a rich resource for learning. Curiosity can create an environment of focus, as can pain, yet it’s different because the goal is not about getting rid of the pain. Instead, it leads to exploration and discovery.

Your attitude of curiosity will take time to cultivate. Remember, there are no magic bullets. You can make notes to yourself to remind yourself to breathe and ask yourself a new question about your experience. You can ask questions such as; “where do I feel tension on the right side of my body as compared to the left?” Or “how does this pain in my shoulder affect my pelvis when I sit?” Or, “if I move very slowly, does it change the intensity of my pain?” Imagine the amount of time you spend rubbing the painful area, wrestling yourself to sleep at night, or complaining to your friends. Instead, capture 5 minutes a day to be an observer of your pain. If you were a friendly alien, what might you wonder about this human being’s experience?

Through this exploration, you may access a different part of your brain. Instead of eliciting an instinctual response to fear, you begin to open yourself up to the possibilities of learning. Neurons are firing, and new connections may be made. This has the potential of releasing different neurotransmitters in your system and allowing a completely different physiologic reaction to occur. This has the potential of supporting your healing process, instead of perpetuating your pain response.

New habits take time and diligence. Overcoming the instinctual response of fear is not easy. Neither is living with chronic pain. Likewise, the various methods we have engaged in to avoid experiencing life because we have associated it with pain, physical or emotional, are life depleting, not enhancing. These include chronic use of medications, drugs, alcohol, TV, work, or even overly rigid and restrictive approaches to diet and exercise. By becoming curious about yourself, your life, and changing the direction of your thoughts about pain, you have the opportunity to participate in the ever-changing process of growth. Through this deeper level of participation you have the opportunity to enjoy a richer and fuller life.

It’s a New Year with new opportunities to become aware of new habits! You can retreat from your pain and restrict your options, or step forward in a new direction and take the courageous step towards self-discovery. What kind of life do you choose to create?