Chronic Pain & Attention: Shift from Angst to Peace

In honor of #PainAwarenessMonth, I continue my series on issues around chronic pain. This one is on the power of attention for chronic pain sufferers and a piece of my chronic pain story.

When we experience chronic pain, where our attention is focused can make the difference between feeling angst or peace. Attention is a super tool that, depending on how we use it, can help us heal and clear chronic pain.

When we experience chronic pain, where our attention is focused can make the difference between feeling angst or peace. Attention is a super tool that, depending on how we use it, can help us heal and clear chronic pain.

I’ve always felt restlessness within myself. No matter how much exercise I did, I still felt edgy. I never found deep peace. My mind was also restless. It took me all over the map – its map, that is. Not knowing how to get a handle on its proclivities, I felt subject to its whimsies and its turmoil. I perceived that I had no control over the chaotic nature of my mind, and with it generally went my attention – all over the map, I mean. I felt unsettled in both my mind and my body.

I could never quite put my finger on the source of these internal feelings of pressured energy. Being unable to silence these underlying tensions by just imagining them into submission, I took up meditation hoping it might help. I learned how to use my attention to laser focus on one sound and allow my thoughts to parade into and out of my mind. But I unknowingly misapplied this tool. Even during meditation, I felt underlying tension. I kept trying to beat my mind at its own game, which turned out to be a losing proposition.

I had another practice –one far more dangerous. Whenever I sensed an uncomfortable feeling in my body, I ignored it. I didn’t want to feel it and deep down I was threatened by it. My feelings seemed so strong that I felt like I would lose control over my body if I fully felt them. And since no one ever spoke about this, I thought it was just something I was dealing with – by myself. I took that powerful tool of attention and turned it promptly away from any uncomfortable feeling. Unless I was brought to my knees, or stopped cold in my tracks by pain, I just kept refocusing my attention away from the pain – physical or emotional – to get away from it and try to escape its grip on me. I ignored it and then ‘pushed through’ whatever circumstance I was experiencing at the time.

In time, I realized that turning away from my physical pain was not helping to decease it, so I tried using my focusing ability on the pain as a possible answer. Interestingly, when I turned toward the physical pain I was experiencing and allowed myself to drop my resistance to it and feel the pain fully, I found that the pain itself receded – not all the way, but significantly. This focusing helped bolster the effect of the pain medications. But none of these things took all the pain away. And I had to have my attention on the pain fully and drop my resistance to it before I felt it subside. Once my attention moved onto something else, the magnitude of the pain returned. This was as close as I got to finding answer on my own to my tension. It was a big clue, but I needed some more direction before I could fully experience the superpower that the tool of attention really could be.

As time passed and I kept ignoring these uncomfortable feelings, I developed massive physical pain. I developed such chronic gut and back pain that I lost track of the time in my life when I didn’t have pain. None of the doctors throughout my life had been able to adequately treat this pain. Yes, they could shoot me up with a drug to knock out the pain, but this was only a temporary fix – very temporary. And not a solution. Even ‘the best’ doctors did not seem to have a clue what to do to help me heal from this chronic pain. Opioid pain medication couldn’t quell it. On top of that, my restlessness morphed exponentially into anxiety and panic attacks. My doctors gave me drugs (benzodiazepines) to help ‘control’ this. These medications ultimately did not help, but I did unwittingly get addicted to them just like I did the opioids. Thus, the choices I had made to address my restlessness and ignore the discomfort in my body in the end only helped to grow and even potentiate the problem.

I entered a treatment hospital to detox from my medications and became a patient in a pain management program. One of the practitioners of the program, John Newton, was instrumental in helping to hone my skills at using the tool of my attention.

John spoke about the power of story in our lives and how much more powerful it was to go deeper than our story. He explained that with every story there is an emotional component which is expressed as a sensation in the body, like tightness in the stomach or heat in the chest. He pointed out that our body is trying to get our attention by giving us these feelings, but instead of putting our attention on these sensations in the body, our tendency is to go into our mind and generate a story about what these feelings mean. The mind makes all kinds of meaning about what we are feeling and judges the whole situation, which is a strategy that can perpetuate the suffering of chronic pain.

“All that this story does is feed suffering,” I heard John say one day.

Suddenly I had an A-HA moment: “I’ve been doing this my whole life!”

John continued: “Instead of just trying to be still and attending to our feelings, or breathing into them, or just stopping what we are doing and listening to our bodies, we do everything to avoid them.”

This was certainly an apt description of my behavior.

Then he played the ace. “The only way to beat the mind at its own game is to stop playing.”

Boom! There it was! The thing I had been seeking for years – direct the attention away from the mind and direct it toward what the body is feeling.

I had gotten the part about using the attention, but I had misdirected it. I had been looking to calm the mind and I was going to lose every time. I needed to look to the body. Further, I discovered that there was nothing for me to fear by feeling my feelings. In fact, they were important communications from my body and not to be ignored or discarded.

John’s guidance was more persistent than my old behavior. Every time I fell back into the old habit of sinking into the grip of a story, John gently put on the brakes for me and guided me back to the sensation in my body. He’d point out, “There’s the story again. Drop it and go to the sensation you are feeling in your body. What is the sensation that you are feeling?” John kept my attention tightly within the confines of this new path and new way of being.

Suddenly, the pieces to the puzzle of finding the peace within that had eluded me all these years fell into place. I finally had found a way shift the focus of my attention to where it needed to be. A key realization for me was that I could turn my attention to my mind or my body, but not both at the same time; hence, when I focused on my body, the chattering of my mind dropped out of the equation. With enough practice, I was finally able to adopt this new, healthier behavior into my lifestyle.

As I began properly implementing the tool of attention, the gut pain from irritable bowel syndrome I had experienced for so long began to dissolve. My anxiety dropped from a fever pitch to a dull roar and then to just an undercurrent of tension. There were other modalities and other people that helped me to dissolve my chronic pain, but this was certainly a critical piece. I was amazed and almost in disbelief that this pain was disappearing. I felt like I inhabited a new body. The word “gratitude” just does not adequately describe the level of appreciation I have for this experience and all the people that made it possible.

I learned to turn the tool of attention towards whatever I’m feeling, become present to it and allow myself to fully feel it, without resistance. I imagine that I am riding the feeling like a wave on the ocean. I experience its rise and fall and then its dissolution back into the sea. Some feelings are stronger than others, requiring me to take an extra step and purposefully breathe into the feeling as it crests, rolls and tumbles back into the mists within my ocean of emotions. That increased heartbeat I feel will follow my breath to calmness after just a handful of deep, slow breaths while I stop whatever else it is that I’m doing and attend to the sensation within my body.

Being present to and simply feeling what I feel inside of me without judgment allows me to let go of my fear of losing control to my feelings and just live in the moment, accepting my feelings. I feel liberated from the fear I’ve carried for so long.

I continue being present ‘in the moment’ and detaching from my mind, dropping into my body to attend to its ‘message’. Now when I notice any sign of restless in my body, I put this super tool of my attention on this tension allows me to drop it and relax into the peace of the moment.

I have finally found my way ‘home’ to the stillness of the present moment. This is a practice. I continue to reach for the capacity to sit still and use the tool of attention as a superpower. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to learn how truly potent and healing this tool really is.

For more tools to help calm you, go to

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