Monthly Archives: August 2012

Pain Can be Like a Children’s Play…

Someone is having fun. Someone is not.

…but it is not child’s play.

An eccentric friend bought you tickets to a show for your birthday.  You never know what he will choose.  He’s dragged you to corny portrayals of Aesop’s Fables and compelling adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.  You wince at the thought of watching adult actors parade around the stage donning animal costumes.  You long to hear Shakespearean English.  (Full disclosure:  I personally would much rather watch the former than the latter — who doesn’t love a talking turtle?! — but this is you, not me).

Yet you also remember a time when you eagerly awaited a performance of Macbeth and then proceeded to look at but not “take in” the first act, doze through the second, and full-on snore through the third.  The play was there but you weren’t tuned into it.  Your ears were open, but your auditory cortex was no longer processing sound waves.  Maybe you were tired.  Maybe you were spacey.  Maybe you had an amazing song stuck in your head.

The opposite has happened:  on occasion, you’ve attended the cheesy children’s plays that you typically find to be beneath you and had a blast.  Or you’ve gone to a movie with a 24% critic/35% viewer approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and laughed nonstop.  And then you watched the movie a second time and were appalled that you initially enjoyed it.

So what gives?  Are you nuts?

Absolutely not!

Same movie.  Different reactions.

Each time you attend a performance — whether it be a movie, a play, a dance show, a choral concert — you bring to the venue a unique composition of perceptive aptitude.  When you saw that trashy movie the first time, you went to a late-night showing with a close friend and had low expectations.  You focused on the movie enough to catch the jokes but not so intently that your intellectual side stepped in and made you feel guilty that you weren’t watching a documentary or indie art film.  The second time, you were alone, fully alert, and ready to analyze each scene.

You were in a good mood in both instances, but the positive feeling disappeared by minute 20 the second time around because you were viewing the film through a different lens.  Your cognitive concentration was not distributed between thoughts about your friend, the yummy ice cream you had before the show, and the movie.  It was 100% on the movie.

The movie is like pain.  Once you enter the theater (the body, if you will), the show will go on regardless of your wishes, focus, and overall state of mind.  Likewise, if you have an inflammatory process occurring in your body, the inflammation will continue unless you turn to medication.

Have you ever walked into a movie theatre and thought, “hey, I’m really going to enjoy this movie.  Even if it’s awful, I’m going to love it.  I can make myself like this movie”?  Maybe you have.  But even if you jumped on the positive psychology bandwagon as you scarfed down your popcorn and chased it down with pop, did you actually end up liking the movie?  Or did you just deny the fact that you wasted ten bucks and two hours?

Have you ever attended a play that you thought you would love, everyone else in your party loves, but you just weren’t feeling it?

Pain, and lack of pain, occur in “heaven” and “hell” alike.

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P(l)ain and Simple

In the last post, which was ages ago (I may or may not have forgotten my WordPress password and reset it.  I’ll try to work on balancing the post-grad life with virtual posting…), I suggested that pain is a performance, albeit an unpalatable one that hurts the senses.  This esoteric analogy might itself be painful to readers who are not steeped in performance theory.  Please forgive me.

My goal in the next two posts is to concretize the eloquent theory (or god-awful gobbledygook, depending on your opinion) I posited over a month ago.  Today’s post is a primer for the pain performance itself.

Several people, including a few who suffer from chronic pain and many who do not, are stuck on the idea that pain is psychological.  “Your foot must be hurting because you’re stressed/upset/angry.”  “If you focused more on the positive aspects of your life, you wouldn’t experience so much foot pain.”  And then there are the corollaries:  “You’re going on vacation next week, right?  I bet your foot will feel better!”  “Congrats on the new job!  I bet your foot likes the good news.”

I like the good news, and my spirits usually follow accordingly.  But to be honest, my foot could care less…unless the new job is going to physical therapy full-time (“yay”) or hiking Mount Everest (nay).

By no means do I intend to debunk all claims that pain has a psychological component to it.  Biology and psychology perpetually intersect.  But there is a difference between the manifestation of psychological (i.e. hysterical or fictional) pain and the perception of physical pain that is exacerbated or minimized by one’s current emotional state.

From my experience, it is not emotion per se that affects pain levels; rather, it is the narrowing or widening of focus on the pain that can intensify or tame the amplitude of pain.  Cognitive concentration.  P(l)ain and simple.

This is where we get to pain as performance.

Tomorrow I will take you into a concert hall of your choice to help you gain a better understanding of pain.  Bring your opera glasses (or reading glasses if you’re part of the presbyopia crew).

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