When in pain, the World looks different

When in pain, the world looks different — We are familiar with the notion that the World is always changing. In fact, change is one of the few certainties in life that we can rely upon. However, change is only possible if there is someone present to experience how things are evolving, and that person is also changing. No two moments are the same.

To experience change we need to know what has happened previously and to recognise the difference in the now. As humans we have complex systems that work together as a whole (the ‘me’) to make sense of what is going on within us and around us, and in so doing, create a perception of the World and where we are within that World. When these pieces fit well, we feel good.

For those suffering chronic pain the World changes in a way that makes it appear threatening, distant, disjointed and sometimes intolerable. We know that places appear to be further away when we have persisting pain, and that stairs look steeper when we are tired. Both of these altered perceptions are protective as they motivate defensive behaviours that can manifest as avoidance. Whilst this is an important strategy in the early stages of an injury, as time passes, this way of operating becomes a problem in itself as engagement with life diminishes. This choice, sometimes conscious and sometimes subconscious, becomes conditioned quickly. Often the decisions about whether to approach or avoid are based upon a belief that pain equates to tissue damage. Understanding pain counters this problem.

I as an individual, with a set of beliefs about myself and the World construct the perception that I have of that World. The reality that I experience is mine, and only mine. This reality can be suggestible and is certainly influenced by many factors, including how I am thinking right now. Is a sunset the same experience when I am happy compared to when I am sad?

Pain is part of the perception of the World, my World. The pain I feel is the ‘how’ I am experiencing the present moment, and I am feeling the pain in a part of my body. This is ‘how’ I am feeling my body, and often the painful area to which I am drawn is the only part of my body that I am feeling. The pain is not separate from the World I perceive, instead it is embedded within the context of my perceived World. Pain is changeable and is a different experience when I am at home compared to when I am at work. Pain is moulded by the environment as much as the perception of my environment is moulded by my pain. We are not, and cannot be separate from the environment in which we reside.

We can use this understanding to our advantage when designing rehabilitation, training and treatment programmes. Considering the environment from where the patient has come, and certainly the environment created for face to face therapy sessions. This is both the space in which the treatment is happening and that cultivated by the therapist through language and posturing. Treatment is embedded within the place where it happens and therefore, creating a place of positive meaning can empower recovery.

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