Do you know the difference between pain and sensation? Do you really?
- Trauma can cause dissociation
- dissociation is an escape from feeling emotions and physical sensation
- Yoga can heal dissociation
- The difference between pain and sensation is “well, pain hurts and sensation doesn’t” – Crystal Gray
I didn’t know the difference between pain and sensation.
In my yoga classes I tell my students ‘don’t push yourself to the limit, go to where you feel sensation not pain.’ I learned this phrasing from my Yoga Teacher Trainer. She said it so matter of fact. As though it was obvious. Such easy advice. So, when I asked ‘how do you tell the difference between sensation and pain though?’ her answer was simple
“well, the pain hurts and the sensation doesn’t.”
Oh, duh. Thanks, crystal!
I have been dissociated from my body for a long time, probably since before I was 13. In fact, in Second grade (7 years old) I told the school therapist I had a ‘day dream problem.’ I am certain this was the first time I told a social worker what was going on. I went for one reason, for a jolly rancher. Otherwise, it would have been a complete secret. He called my mom. She said to stop looking out the window in class. It was right in front of them but invisible. My invisible monster.
Dissociation as webster’s dictionary defines ‘the disconnection or separation of something from something else or the state of being disconnected.’ In psychology the term describes escaping your body and mind. Feelings dull both physically and mentally.
My vision would lose focus, like a daydream with no substance. I was a quiet, modest girl by nature. I liked to listen to other people have conversations and learn. Because of my inherent temperament it was easy to rationalize what was going on in my head. But I was not really listening. I was escaping from the chaotic environment before me in a way no one could notice. Adults would say I was such a well-mannered girl.
Back then, in my young teens, I would self-harm to allow a sense of departure from my emotional wounds. I would not suggest this but at the time it made sense in my naïve youth. It gave me the desired affect I wanted. To feel something. To direct my attention to something. To briefly escape from something. Though it worked, I did not know what these somethings were.
These somethings followed me from adolescence and into adulthood, morphing from one vice to another. Razor blades, hitting my head against walls, alcohol blackouts, binges, purges, staying up late, sleeping during the day, meeting strangers with complete disregard for my safety. These were all normal for me. To someone else, the only word I can describe these things is pain.
But it was normal.
I never stopped feeling the pain to the point where it became my status quo. In my mind sensation and pain were synonymous. It hurt to feel something. It hurt to feel anything. But everyone wants to feel something.
So pain was what I would feel.
It was 3 years ago I realized the difference. The pain became so intense I felt like I was dying. It was frightening. It took me 4 months of constant feeling of heart attack when my aunt took me to the emergency room. Drinking her hot bone broth in the ER was when I decided to make a real change. I was told I was having panic attacks.
I would decide to try to live and begin to feel everything. For the sake of my partner, for the sake of my aunt, and for the sake of the little girl who deserved to know peace and never had the chance. I count this as my rebirth. The woman from before that day is a woman who I love dearly, but I now see her as a completely different person. We are sisters. She is my past.
It was that year I started to do yoga on a regular basis.
You learn a lot of things when you start to do yoga. Things come up. They bubble up to the surface and there is a release of emotions with every one of my classes. Some classes I would cry, others I would flash back to seemingly inconsequential moments in my life. They were consequential apparently.
Because I was had been so disconnected from my body, I started to actually see what I looked like and feel what I looked like. I think I hadn’t looked into a mirror in years so this was a huge change. I started to know what the texture of my skin, the feeling of thirst, how much space I took up (as apposed to how much I thought I took up), then more and more subtle sensations like the pulse of my heart in my thumb.
But what was sensation?
Doing yoga every day was the way I figured it out. It was when I tried hanamanasana, splits, for the first time. I was not even close to ready for this contortion. I went into the pose and my bum was two feet off the ground. Then I let go to go all the way into a pose I was definitely not ready for.
Sharp, sudden, hot, weak, swollen, pierced me in my right abductor. Ahh! I fell out of the pose immediately. I thought oh this is pain. I hadn’t hurt myself in such a while, and had started to feel myself on daily basis, I could finally tell the difference. Like Crystal had said, well, the pain hurts.
A numbness came over me in savasana . An old familiar feeling. It comes into my third eye and sweeps down into my neck where my throat feels swollen. The dissociation was back while I laid in savasana, corpse pose.
But I could feel the shift. I could name it. I knew how it came to be. And I knew it would be over at some point. By the end of my extended corpse pose I would try to walk.
It was hard. I limped for a few days and it took a whole month to heal from the sprain of my inner thigh. I was reminded of my fresh wounds of adolescence, taking weeks to heal as I would scratch at the scabs and make them bleed again. Not this time, I promised myself.
For the next couple of months, I allowed myself only beginner poses, with beginner modifications. Because of yoga, I was learning to take care of myself and heal from pain. Ever before I had never felt the need for healing.
I would be my own mother and nurse the little girl inside of me.
We are good friends now.
Have you ever been so into a movie you forget you’re in the theater and just soak up the experience? Well, when you go to a movie that’s what you intend to do. I think we should try to let those fluttering thoughts come and go without judgement, so that we can stay connected to the true present moment and into what our bodies feel in that moment.
So, I ask you this.
Do you know the difference between pain and sensation? Do you really?
When was the last time you felt pain and what did it feel like? How often do you feel pain? How long does it last? Where does it start and where does it end? What can you do in that moment to comfort yourself? Even if you don’t suffer from dissociative episodes, these might be fair questions for you.
In our busy modern lives, it is easy to focus on your mind. All your racing thoughts. ‘the kids need to get picked up’ ‘I can’t be late for my appointment,’ ‘my sibling really did a jerky thing to me,’ ‘why is the guy in front of me taking so long at checkout?’ all of these kinds of thoughts take us away from the present moment and away from our bodies.
Let them come and go like clouds, and embrace every good feeling while you can taste it. Pain is inevitable, but when you can tell the difference, you can savor the good feelings I promise.
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