People with a good sense of humour sometimes think of severe chronic pain as “another *%$@!! growth opportunity.” But pain isn’t just an opportunity for personal growth. Sometimes, growth may be the way out of the pain.
Personal growth is a strategy that I recommend as a general method of trying to cope with and facilitate difficult and/or mysterious recovery. On the one hand, personal growth may be directly relevant to the neurology and physiology of chronic pain, which often involves a neurological phenomenon called “sensitization” — an over-active alarm system that needs to be calmed and soothed, the sensitivity dialed down.
And personal growth can also be a wild goose chase — growing up more isn’t easy, nor is it necessarily relevant to chronic pain. Worst of all, people often face nearly invincible hardships in their lives, problems that are going to continue to be extremely stressful almost no matter what they do.
But sometimes personal growth heals the body when all else fails … and of course it’s never a waste of time to try to grow up a little more.
“Personal growth” might sound like something that’s just for hippies, but it’s an important and sensible concept that I decided to get comfortable with a long time ago. It’s just the process of increasing self-awareness and self-actualization — knowing and being more like yourself — and breaking down self-limiting behaviours at the same time.
Personal growth is more popularly known simply as “growing up” or “getting older and wiser.” And smarter. Knowledge is part of wisdom, and informed, rational confidence — a cousin of placebo — has great importance in managing pain.
Once a danger message arrives at the brain, it has to answer a very important question: “How dangerous is this really?” In order to respond, the brain draws on every piece of credible information — previous exposure, cultural influences, knowledge, other sensory cues — the list is endless.
Pain really is in the mind, but not in the way you think, Moseley (TheConversation.com)
Sometimes — not always, but often enough to make it worth trying — when you embark on a personal growth “journey”, chronic pain and other mysterious or stubborn physical problems change or fade away. It may never be clear exactly why.1
Regardless, personal growth is something most people end up doing sooner or later whether you like it or not! Pain has a way of herding people into self-improvement. You might as well take credit for it, and you might as well get started sooner rather than later. And it’s a nice perk that it can never be a waste of time — getting wiser is good! — even if it has no effect on your medical problems.
Chronic pain has forced me into the same good habits that everyone else is after. I make sure I sleep and eat well. I don't work too hard. I don't drink much. I prioritize balance. For most people, an imbalanced life means burnout in a few years time, but with chronic pain this can happen almost immediately. … I am in many ways stronger, whether I like it or not.
How chronic pain has made me happier, Heaton (RobertHeaton.com)
Pain is also an extremely personal challenge in the sense that it is private and even isolating. There’s just you and the pain, trapped together inside your skull. With chronic pain, there are no outward signs, nothing to “prove” how much pain you’re in, not even a way to compare directly with someone else’s pain. Pain is also a more “creatively” produced experience, more volatile than most other sensations.2
I think about the meaning of pain. Pain is personal. It really belongs to the one feeling it. Probably the only thing that is your own. I like mine.
Everything we experience — pain included, pain especially — is an expression of who we are and who we have been. If you could magically change everything about your personality, you would become someone else and probably trade all your current problems for new ones — even some diseases and consequences of old injuries might well vanish, obsolete manifestations of your old self.
The hope of personal growth is that, if we change enough, we might just change the part of us that is hurting — probably without even understanding the connection. Mysterious problems sometimes just go away when we work on ourselves.3
Manual therapies are usually aimed at a target tissue, with the goal of changing something specific in the body, whether that’s realistic or not.4 Personal growth, on the other hand, is general. It has the potential to affect — and change — almost anything about you.
Rob Heaton again:
Whilst the problem is superficially a physical one, the real challenges faced by someone with chronic pain are mental. Mental state is the biggest modulator of physical pain. Things hurt more when you’re stressed or sad, and the increased pain makes you both stressed and sad. The way out of this vicious circle is a wholesale change to how you perceive fear, suffering and setbacks.
Just as a sugary diet and lack of exercise are powerful factors in diabetes — an obvious equation we are all pretty familiar with — some habits and life patterns are also strong predictors of the chronicity and severity of pain. Smoking and sleep deprivation both directly make pain worse. Alcohol is more complicated: it’s a common coping mechanism and a sleep destroyer, which does substantially worsen pain. This is the stuff of vicious cycles: pain, alcohol, sleep loss, more pain, more alcohol, more sleep loss …
What starts out as an understandable coping mechanism — a couple of drinks at the end of a hard day — can eventually turn you into your own worst enemy.5 Assuming you even know that the alcohol is a problem in the first place, it’s a difficult vicious cycle to escape, but unfortunately it’s rare for chronic pain patients to even recognize the nature of the challenge in the first place without some wise and expert counselling.
People do sometimes succeed in retreating from alcohol abuse for a wide variety of other reasons. In this way, personal growth can lead to changes that significantly improve chronic pain, without the reason for the improvement necessarily ever being understood, or even actually “curing” the problem.
Personal growth casts a wide net, and may improve or eliminate many things that were, collectively, making a relatively minor problem into a horrible one.
There is no one way of doing personal growth, but here are some guidelines:
There literally an infinite number of ways of going about personal growth. However, without a doubt, going to Haven is probably the best and simplest. (But not easy. And not cheap.)
Haven is an unusual school on Gabriola Island, on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. Started in the 1970s by a couple creative and loving psychiatrists,6 Jock McKeen and Bennet Wong, Haven now hosts many experiential workshops. It’s much less “new agey” than some other famous West Coast institutions (Hollyhock, Esalen) that basically just rent space to any motivational speaker or spiritual guru who can draw a crowd. In contrsat, Haven is devoted to education, and it is an actual diploma-granting school for counsellors. But regular people can study along with them.
Haven’s founders believed that life is a fine art that must be learned — and can only be learned from other people, including people with much more experience.7 The best course to start with is called Come Alive, a “crash course” in a lot of their basic ideas. This is the shortcut.Life is a fine art that must be learned & can only be learned from other people.
And here’s another handy shortcut tip: the good news about using personal growth as a general approach to healing is that it’s not unusual for your primary health concerns to be directly associated with your biggest personal hang-up. If you go to Come Alive, for instance, you might want to think about focussing on whatever your most obvious “damage” is. This simplifies things quite a bit!
Unfortunately, it’s not always that straightforward.
Or, to be more positive, let’s call it a hot tip, something to watch out for. There’s this terrible catch-22 in personal growth …
If you were the kind of person who could easily change the thing about you that makes you hurt, then you probably wouldn’t have the problem in the first place.
There’s a reason that people don’t routinely experience surprising recoveries from deeply intertwined psychological and physical suffering: it’s really, really difficult.
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.
— Significant revision. Migrated many points to footnotes for readability. Added several new links. Clarified the purpose of the article (what it is, and what it’s not). Added a fun featured image.