When you continually avoid the pain, every time you feel the agony, it's as raw as the first time.
Whenever I have an open day off work, I like to go to a Korean sauna across town. The wet area of the facility has a variety of pools ranging from hot to cold. Very cold. When I first lower my body into the frigid water, I gasp and then stop breathing as my body is shocked into silence. The cold slices through my skin and my panicking brain begs for me to leave.
Sometimes I listen to the alarm in my mind and I quickly exit the pool, where I immediately warm up again. Of course then, if I decide to reenter the pool, I have to start from scratch, beginning with the initial pain of the icy waters.
Other times, I am able to stay in the water. I focus on my breathing—slow deep inhale, pause, slow full exhale— until the screaming in my brain finally quiets. And as I hold my body still, a strange thing begins to happen. The shock and discomfort of the cold begins to recede and is instead replaced by a sense of calm surrender.
Emotional pain is no different.
If you strive to avoid the discomfort, you inadvertently expose yourself to the initial trauma time and time again. However, with prolonged exposure, you begin to acclimate to the grief. You begin to trust that even though it is terrible, it is not fatal. You learn how to focus on loosening the bindings around your heart so that you can allow your breath in, and in doing so, begin to calm the mind.
If you're struggling to stay with emotional pain, start by training yourself to tolerate physical discomfort. Try hot yoga, distance running, or even an ice cold bath. Let the body begin to teach the mind.
Recognize the power that you're giving the pain when you constantly strive to avoid it. We seek to turn away from pain because we fear it, yet maybe what we should really fear is the denial of a natural and, ultimately, illuminating emotion.
When you repeatedly tell your story, you move from character to narrator.
When trauma first happens, people are often compelled to tell their story, with all its gory details, to anyone who will listen (or at least pretend to listen). This early telling is emotional—a re-experiencing where the body punctuates each word with its visceral memories of the pain.
In time, this drive to recite the story fades. And often, at this point, people pack up their memories and lock them away in some dark recess of the mind. Yet in doing so, they're missing a powerful healing opportunity.
Research has revealed that the power of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a type of therapy that uses eye movements to help neutralize trauma, is not in the specialized actions, but in the continual recounting of the difficult experience in a safe and supportive environment. With repeated exposure, the person gains a little more distance from the pain and even begins to feel some power over it as they work to shape the narrative structure around their memories.
Another way to practice retelling your story until you gain some space is through the use of journaling. Write your experience. Take a slightly different viewpoint, and write it again. Try expressing it in the third person. As you expose yourself to the pain repeatedly, it loses its power over you.
Healing from intense pain is like suturing a deep wound.
I remember being so raw—emotionally gutted and bleeding tears. Yet life continued, and I was needed. So I managed to tuck the pain inside for most of the days so that I could function in the world. And to many, I probably appeared fine. But the wound was only closed on the surface. The real healing was happening beneath.
The care for an emotional wound is not unlike a physical one. Let it breathe. You may need to keep it covered while you're at work or when you have to put on a brave face for the kids. But when it's safe, take off the bandage and let the fresh air in.
Keep the wound clean to avoid festering. Sometimes you have to remove debris that is impeding healing. And it will sting. But that pain is necessary to keep you healthy.
Don't poke at it. Differentiate between pain that is helpful (exploring your response to a trigger) and unneeded agony (checking your ex's Facebook every day).
And, like a physical wound, once the injury has already occurred, the offending object that caused the damage is no longer of consequence. Only the healing matters. Don’t wait until you are healed to begin living. There are smiles to be found amongst the tears.
Part of dealing with the pain is being with the pain. But that's not the whole story. Because even though you hurt right now, you are not only the hurt. Pain does not restrict you to a waiting room while life passes you by. It's okay to keep living, even while you still ache. After all, smiles and tears can often be found together.