What is your pain trying to tell you?
I recently had a conversation with some friends about whether there’s always an emotional cause of pain and illness.
Two days earlier I had done a particularly gruelling yoga class. I started that class feeling tired. I worked too hard, strained some muscles by over-working them. Nothing serious, but now my back muscles were achey and weary. Certain movements highlighted this and caused me some pain.
As a general rule, I always believe in an emotional or spiritual cause to pain. So was there an emotional cause to my yoga-induced muscle strain pain?
It would be easy to think there wasn’t. We all know that when we work a muscle too hard, it will be sore for a few days. That’s a very simple, very common, cause-and-effect reality of muscles.
No deeper meaning, right?
Find the emotional cause of pain with a different question
Had someone come along, as I winced with my sore back muscles, and asked me “oh, you’re in pain, what’s the emotional cause there”, even I would have floundered for an answer. And I believe there is always one!
This is because, more often than not, it is really, really hard to see the connections. And a “cause” is a hefty label to give to an internal environment you are unaware of!!
So as my friends were sharing their opinions on whether illnesses have emotional causes, I asked myself a different question: What is my pain trying to tell me?
What was my back pain trying to tell me?
When I thought about this question, some deeper stuff poured out easily.
- I didn’t listen to what my body needed.
Why did I do a yoga class when I was so tired? Bodies get tired when they need rest. Why would I choose to work the body harder? That’s not healthy – it’s kind of self abuse, actually. Why would I do that? (read more about how to rest the body here)
- I didn’t value my body enough to protect it.
Once the class started, I could feel my body not performing with its normal strength. Why didn’t I stop? Not only did I risk getting the sore muscles I’d ended up with, but pushing a tired body in this way can lead to serious injury too. Why would I risk that? What was driving me forward?
- My ego needed to prove something to itself, at the expense of the body.
In yoga, teachers often give you options for making the poses easier or harder, so students of all levels can participate effectively. In this class, I kept trying the harder options. Why? Why not make the class suit my ability in the moment? Why did I feel the need to push harder than normal?
- I cared about other people’s opinions of me more than I cared about myself.
Why did the teacher saying “come on, three more” make me do three more? I knew I was exhausted. I knew it wasn’t good for me. Why did watching all the students moving through the flow make me feel I couldn’t stop doing it?
There was SO much going on inside me during that yoga class that lead me to choose actions that caused pain.
And suddenly there was all kinds of emotional causes to my pain.
If I had simply accepted the logic of “work hard = muscle pain” and left it there, I’d have never had a deeper opportunity to understand myself, care for my body and gain a deeper level of health.
But asking my pain what it was trying to tell me opened up the truth easily.
Try this for yourself now.
First, take a few breaths with your eyes closed and feel which parts of your body are in pain.
Next, give one of those parts in pain the opportunity to communicate its message to you. Ask it what it is trying to say. (I know that sounds weird, but just go with it).
Here’s a few examples I’ve just come up with:
My shoulder is tense and the tension is rippling up my neck. This could be a migraine in a few hours, if I don’t do something about it.
Message from the pain: “I’m really frustrated. I’m unable to move forward today – this blog post is taking too long, I’m busy and need to do some other things. I would feel better if you went outside and let the sun warm you, relaxed and enjoyed being alive for a while”.
My wrists are sore, partly from typing for a long period this morning and partly because I do too much yoga (!).
Message from the pain: “This pain isn’t good. I think you should get us looked at to make sure you’re not doing some more serious damage. And ask your yoga teacher if there are ways to alleviate the pressure during class. In the meantime, take some typing breaks and get a proper keyboard for your laptop!”
As you can see – the body knows a lot about why it’s hurting and what it needs to feel better.
The dangers of believing it can be purely physical
The way I see it, you risk two things when you accept that some illnesses, ailments and pain do not have emotional causes.
Firstly, you miss the opportunity to do some inner work toward wholeness.
When I asked my back what it was trying to tell me, I got a list of things we can all see are issues I need to work on. It is immaterial to me whether or not these actually “caused” my pain.
In my mind, they absolutely led to choices that caused my pain. Did the issues themselves, in their desire to be healed, find a way to express themselves in physical pain? I think yes, but I also think that’s not the important question to ask.
For me, having my psyche show me a new bunch of issues to work on is fantastically valuable and if dealing with those issues relieves and prevents pain in the future (which I believe it will) then that’s all that matters. And I get to grow as a person as well.
Had I stuck with “this pain is just the logical effect of hard physical work during yoga” and left it there, I’d have missed that rich well of issues to work on.
Secondly, it’s all too easy to put all your illnesses, ailments and pain into the “this is just a physical thing” basket and never dig deeper.
This is because digging deeper is hard. And the inner growth work it reveals to you is even harder. It’s not always comfortable. In fact, it’s rarely comfortable. It takes time, effort, energy and commitment.
And it usually involves emotions that aren’t pleasant, which is why we haven’t dealt with them yet!
It can also be scary. There are usually life changes, risks, difficult discussions and tough choices to be made as a result of inner work. Change is hard.
Humans avoid hard. And if you give yourself the option of saying “oh, this is just physical, no need to dig deeper”, then you’ll take that option because it’s easy. And it will cost you not just your inner growth but the physical healing that follows also.
A word on blame, guilt and the “I deserve it because I caused it” trap
To look deeper for causes to physical issues means you’ll have the power to make changes that can lead to healing.
However, for most of us, admitting we have had some part to play in developing and perpetuating illness and pain is really difficult. This is because we associate that ability with guilt and blame. And that quickly leads to “I caused the pain I’m in”.
All of this is misguided.
We all do the best we can with the knowledge we have. Many of us experiencing chronic illnesses are doing our best to cope with the daily burden of the pain. To accept that we may somehow be preventing our own healing seems crazy, offensive and cruel.
As a coach in this kind of thinking, I don’t see it this way. I see chronically hurting bodies as beautifully functioning signposts to inner issues.
We must love our bodies, love their messages and the way they are trying to love us into happier, healthier lives. Listening to your body, caring for it, hearing the messages it tells us is exactly how we’re meant to live and grow and thrive.
It’s not about whether you’re to blame, or whether you deserve the pain. Yours is a body that’s helping you bloom into a fuller person. It’s your best friend in finding a life that feels beautiful to live.
Take a gentler, more loving approach to yourself, your body and your illness. My Making Peace With Pain course can guide you, step by step, though the process of listening to your pain, loving it and healing it.