Bearing the Unbearable Pain

Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.

Helen Keller

One of the most effective ways to survive a suicidal episode is to find ways to live one day at a time. There are some days, however, when the pain and torment are so great that surviving even twenty-four hours seems impossible. 

During my third suicidal episode, I was engulfed in unbearable pain that I saw as having no remedy. It was then that an old college friend serendipitously re-entered my life. Teresa Keane was a registered nurse who taught stress reduction and mindfulness meditation to patients suffering from intractable physical pain. By practicing these techniques, her patients learned to alleviate not only their physical discomfort but their emotional distress as well. I arranged to meet with Teresa in her office where I described my inner torment.

“Facing pain is a learned skill,” Teresa responded. “When you are in a lot of pain, whether it is a migraine headache or suicidal torment, the pain dominates all of your awareness and becomes all-encompassing. It’s hard to remember a time when the distress was absent, and it’s hard to believe that it will ever go away. It’s as if both past and future are blotted out, and you are left stranded in your present misery.” 

“You have described my experience perfectly, “I replied. “Now, how do I deal with this pain?” I asked.

“There are two levels of pain that you are feeling,” Teresa explained. “The first level is physiological—the raw pain in your nervous system. The second layer, and this is where you have some control, consists of how you interpret your experience. 

“The key to reducing your perception of pain is to uncouple the sensations in your body from the thoughts you are having about those sensations. 

“Perhaps you may be thinking, ‘This torment is killing me,’ or ‘This will last forever,’ or ‘There is nothing I can do about it.’ Each of these despairing thoughts creates a neurochemical reaction in the brain that creates even more distress. If you can learn to refrain from these judgments, much of the pain that arises from them will diminish.” 

“How do I do this?”

“Instead of attempting to resist your pain,” Teresa responded, “try surrendering to it. Think of your pain as a large wave that is approaching you. As the wave makes contact, see if you can ride the wave by focusing on your breath.“

“Breathe through the sensations, breathing in and out while attending to the sound of your breathing. Don’t try to analyze what is happening, just breathe. It’s not even about getting through the day; it’s about getting through each breath. There is something transformative that happens when we simply allow ourselves to experience and accept our pain without trying to judge, change, or resist it in any way. We call this mindfulness.”

Mindfulness and Acceptance

At that moment, Teresa reached over and pressed a tender point between my right thumb and index finger (I later learned that it was a particularly sensitive acupuncture point). 

“Ouch! That hurts,” I protested.

“Breathe into the place in your body where you feel the pain,” Teresa responded compassionately. “As you do this, notice how the experience of your pain begins to change.”

I breathed into the soreness and observed that the pain in my hand softened and decreased until I could hardly feel it.

“Good work,” Teresa replied. “Now see if you can do the same with your emotional pain. Insteading of judging the pain or pushing it away, just breathe into it and notice what occurs.”

Teresa showed me another powerful technique to use with my self-talk when my pain became intense. Whenever I cried, “My pain is unbearable,” Teresa would reply, “Tell yourself the pain is barely bearable.” 

“The pain is barely bearable,” I repeated aloud. There was a shift and I felt it. Instead of feeling hopeless, I thought, “The pain is bad, but I can handle it.”

During a later  session, I screamed, “I can’t take it anymore!”

You can barely take it,” Teresa responded.

“I can barely take it,” I replied. 

Using these techniques of surrendering to my pain and changing the way I thought about it interrupted the pain cycle enough to make my suffering “barely bearable.” I encourage you to use these strategies to respond to your own extreme pain. As you do so, I believe that you, too, will be able to bear the unbearable pain.

Journal Reflection:
Bearing the Unbearable Pain

In your own journal or using the Bearing the Unbearable Pain PDF form, reflect on the following questions:

  1. When you feel an unpleasant emotion or sensation, how do you respond to it?
  2. Have ever been at a point in your life where you felt that your distress was so great that it felt unbearable and you couldn’t go on?
  3. How are you dealing with your distress right now?
  4. When a surfer encounters a powerful wave, he doesn’t try to resist it. Instead, he rides the wave and allows it to take him to shore. Have you ever tried accepting your emotions’s presence and riding it like a wave?
  5. If you are now telling yourself that your pain is unbearable, what happens if instead you say, “My pain is barely bearable?” Do you notice a shift inside of yourself that takes the edge off your pain?