Tell me how it is to be you, in pain.

Much of my lost-in-my-own-thoughts time today was spent wondering about the nature of psychological/emotional/spiritual pain.

I’ve become increasingly curious in the last year or two about people in general; in particular, I wonder how others experience (and heal from) emotional pain.  How does it feel?  How does it manifest? Can you locate it physically or metaphorically?  What proportion of the pain is torturous thoughts? Difficult emotions? Physical discomfort?  I would like to construct continuums to measure the embodiment of psychological pain in thoughts, feelings, and the body.

No, I haven’t googled yet to see if such scales exist, so I’m probably plagiarizing someone from the 1960s by “discovering” it for myself.

The continuum for measuring manifestation of psychological pain in thoughts would run from forgetfulness and blanking out to obsessive/intrusive thoughts about the source of pain.  The left side would represent complete avoidance (repression or suppression), and the right side would represent the inability to avoid thinking about it.

The “feelings” continuum would go from flatness/numbness (which is probably impossible to quantify) to panic. Or maybe not–maybe panic is too physical. What would be the opposite of numbness? Sorrow?  Anger?  Despair?  How do you “feel” despair?

I’m thinking that the continuum for for physical symptoms would also have to be in the shape of a crescendo sign.  On the left would be no affect on heart rate, adrenaline levels, blood pressure, appetite and sleeping.  Upper right would be extremely “activated/fight or flight” physical symptoms (pounding heart, adrenaline, high blood pressure, low/high appetite, digestive symptoms, insomnia, agitation).  Lower right would be “shut down” physical symptoms (lethargy, hypersomnia, low/high appetite).

I fantasized today about finding a group of people, locating them on these three scales, and talking to each about the subjective experience of being in psychological pain from loss (that just happens to be the most interesting topic to me, and it can be felt from any realm of a person’s life) in order to create some sort of picture of what it’s like to be that person in pain.  If I had an infinite-sized sample, where would the central tendencies for each scale lie?  Could I create a list of “types” of experiencing pain (kind of like attachment style, but it would have to have more than four categories)? Is there a most common “type” of way to feel pain, and where am I in relation to that?  Where is the next person I meet?

I think I have a decent enough idea of what it’s like to feel it or not feel it in your body.  I understand cognitively that some people experience few physical symptoms, and I know a couple people who sleep more when they’re distressed…but I’m an insomniac even on a good day, and my appetite goes away with the slightest bit of stress.  I also understand that I’m closer to the “hard to put things out of my mind” end of the continuum, although that has improved immensely because of the need to put my daughter first and be her mother no matter what is going on with me.

The other one, though…the feelings…that is a mystery to me.  I feel it in my chest, in my heart.  It’s steady, not throbbing.  It feels heavy, like it’s pushing my heart down.  But then again…is that physical or emotional?  I think that’s more of the embodiment of a feeling than, say, lack of appetite.  I’d have to find a way to draw a grey line between “emotional” and “physical.”

I had a moment today, thinking about it.  It’s always special when someone realizes that we may all see colors differently  (I almost feel like it’s a developmental task, although I don’t think the stage of life in which it’s fulfilled matters).  One person’s “green” may be another person’s “purple,” as long as it’s consistent for each person.  It occurred to me today that that could apply to so many more human experiences.  The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes is a fundamental part of being a “good” person, but we can’t help but to operate from the assumption that people experience pain the way we do.  I think empathetic statements such as “I would feel…” or “that must be….” are helpful, because they give the opportunity for the other person to agree or refute (if they have the energy to do so, which they may not).

I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to ask someone who, for example, is grieving the loss of a parent how it feels to them..but then again, maybe it is okay, with the right timing.  Maybe down the road.

But that brings up another thing about which I’m curious: How does it go away?  How strongly do you re-experience it (cognitively, emotionally, and physically) when you think about it, or if your memory is triggered by a story, a song, the weather?  Do you fully disassociate so that you’re actually “there” again (I have done that, and it’s not always a horrendous experience. Sometimes it’s merely bittersweet), or is a wall put up to prevent the memory from touching anything being cognition?

There is so much more to this.  I wonder if our capacity for pain is fixed, if it deepens throughout life, or if it peaks somewhere.  What determines the limit of how you feel pain?  Is having your favorite toy broken just as painful for a few minutes as the way it feels to lose someone you have loved for years?  How does our experience of pain change from childhood to old age?

The neat thing is that much of this is unknowable.

You would think I would start searching for information on this–surely it’s been “discovered” a million times over–but, for now, I don’t want the frustration of actually reading about methodology to distract me from my curiosity.  I’d actually be more interested in creating a survey and seeing what randies on the internet have to say about it.


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