The Mindful Approach to Pain and Injury

When I think back on all of the injuries that I incurred as a gymnast, I cringe at the way I dealt with them. I have that same reaction when I watch gymnastics, or any sport for that matter, on TV and hear the commentators praising athletes for competing with a torn rotator cuff or pushing through some type of physical pain.

Having been a gymnast for 21 years, I understand that mentality of “mind over matter” and “no pain, no gain”, but now 16 years removed from sport, I have a completely different perspective. While we’re in the thick of competition, we push through in hopes of attaining our athletic goals, and we’re oftentimes praised for it. Pushing through creates a sense of feeling tough and even more deserving of our accomplishments once they’re met.

And this mentality goes beyond just the athletic arena. Much of our culture encourages this “pushing through” and “win at all costs” mindset.

But is this short-term gain worth the long term pain? I don’t think so…

I was one of those athletes who had a lot of injuries throughout my athletic career and pushed beyond where I should have. My body was trying to talk to me, and I didn’t listen. Then it started to yell at me, and I didn’t listen. Then, it started to scream at me, and…I didn’t listen. It met it’s limit a few years back, and I have been forced to relearn how to truly listen to and respect my body.

So, I’m speaking from experience here and want to ensure that anyone reading this knows how important it is to listen when their bodies are talking to them and feel good about themselves for having the intelligence to honor and respect the physical messages.

I believe there is a different way to work with injury and pain, both in and out of sport. I know that pain is inevitable, but what we can control is how we relate to it, learn from it, and make the mind and body even stronger as a result of it. There’s the saying, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Learning how to relate to our pain with more compassion and understanding reduces the suffering

It serves us all to know how to listen to our bodies with an accepting attention. When we’re in pain and struggling, it’s natural to want to push it away and change it. We start to criticize ourselves possibly with self-blame or somehow feel responsible for the pain we’re enduring.

Enjoy this full-length version of the body scan by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

But it is possible to learn a different approach. So, whether you’re a high level athlete who tends to push through injury or someone struggling with chronic pain, we can learn to hold the pain with more kindness and understanding.

There’s a mindfulness practice called “the body scan” which is simply a mental scan of the body from toes to head, coming in contact with the raw sensations that arise. The body scan can be guided (preferably by someone well-versed in the practice, and I have included one here), or once you understand the practice, can be done silently on your own.

This practice trains the brain to recognize physical sensation free of judgment. How can this help with injury and pain? If we practice getting in touch with what is going on in our bodies, we will be much better equipped to know when something is off or being overly stressed and, most importantly, have a more respectful way of relating to it.

Instead of mentally trying to override the pain, we will learn how to listen to the messages the body is sending. We can then respond to our needs from a place of kindness instead of judgment and resistance.

Now it’s not to say that judgment and resistance won’t arise. It’s natural to try to get away from discomfort, but as we practice in bringing mindfulness to what is arising, we can also be aware of the judgment and resistance and not be so swayed to act out of those feelings.

I personally utilized the body scan following my gymnastics career because I was so distant from my body, if that makes sense. I didn’t really know how to listen to what it was saying because my brain had been trained to, regardless of what my body was saying, ignore it or overcome it somehow.

The short-term gain of accomplishment as a result of pushing through is not worth the long-term pain, and we don’t have to push through in order to reach our fullest potential in life. In fact, by pushing through and ignoring our bodies, we set ourselves up for potential difficulties in the future. By learning how to relate to ourselves with more kindness and compassion, we can take care of ourselves now which…as the saying goes, “take care of the moments, and the years will take care of themselves.”

If you want to learn more about this practice, please contact me at theresa@fit-intuit.com