the word 'no' in printers wooden blocks

What Are You Resisting?

I’ve been thinking about resistance quite a bit this week.

Try this little experiment with me:
Think about something in your life that’s painful. It might be physical, a thought or an emotion.
Now make a fist… keep it clenched.
Now notice what’s happened to your breathing.

Chances are you’re holding your breath and there’s probably some other tension. When we feel discomfort of any kind, we brace ourselves, we contract around it. We resist.

Make that fist again. Now breath into it. Notice what happens when you let the out-breath flow through the fist. It probably wants to soften and open.

I have experienced a lot of chronic illness and pain in my life. And I put a lot of energy into trying to understand why, and into trying to deal with anything that might be causing it, and therefore to make it go away. (By the way, I’m talking about physical pain here because that’s how it shows up for me, but maybe you experience more emotional or mental pain in the form of anxiety or depression for example. The same principles apply.)

What I didn’t give much consideration to is quite how much resistance I had to my physical condition, and how much discomfort this caused me. The primary pain, the physical one, gives rise to so much more suffering (mental and emotional).

Let me explain it this way. Imagine you have a bad back, (or panic attacks, or OCD, or…) . You hate how this makes you feel. You are angry that you’re suffering. You’re frustrated at all the things you can’t do because of it. You’re jealous of other people who are not challenged this way. You are afraid that you’re always going to be this way and never get better. You’re worried about who you’re letting down.

On and on goes the mental chatter. Thoughts such as “My life is ruined by pain” or “ I’ll never be well again” are very threatening to a brain concerned with survival. They result in changes to your biology – your muscles are tensing and your adrenals are putting out stress hormones which fatigue you further and increase your perception of the pain.

This is all ‘secondary’ pain. In fact, I realised, it is this secondary pain which is probably the real problem. There’s a saying “What we resist persists”. And there’s a reason for this. When neural circuits are repeatedly used, the nervous system actually starts to re-wire itself, so that it becomes more efficient at sending the danger messages to the brain. The result of this is that the pain experience becomes even stronger.

If, on the other hand, you engage in mindful meditation, stop resisting, allow your body to give itself to gravity, and use your breath to soften around the pain and your mental chatter, what happens is that the pain lessens and everything feels more possible.

It’s more possible to bear the present, more possible to remember that this will pass, more possible to appreciate those aspects of your life that are not this pain, and more possible to create positive images of the future. And yes, there is still some pain, but you begin to notice that it is a fluid experience. It changes, ebbs and flows.

It’s natural to want to fight pain, to want it to go away, even to hate it. But, unfortunately, resistance just makes things worse.

The good news is there are lots of ways to decrease resistance and reverse the over-sensitised nervous system, including letting go of the struggle, softening towards yourself and your experience, engaging actively in self-care, practicing mindfulness and breath-based meditation, and engaging in activities which support you and your recovery and growth.

Next Time: More on Self-Care

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