Back in April, I was in a lot of pain from recurring headaches. Physical pain, yes, but when I really looked at the pain and the causes of it, I realized I was making it worse with my thoughts about it.
Dr. Steven Hayes, a psychologist and the pioneer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, talks about clean pain and dirty pain. I have found this concept very helpful.
Clean pain happens when you cut your hand slicing a bagel or when you stub your toe. Clean pain also happens when you lose a loved one or a job. It’s the pain we feel when we experience something hurtful. We have a natural stress response to the happening and it gradually subsides.
Dirty pain is pain that’s caused by the thoughts we have about a situation or event. I can take the clean pain of cutting my hand and create dirty pain by telling myself, “How am I going to cook dinner now? I’m going to need stitches and the rest of my day is ruined. I’ll never get it all done.”
We can stay mired in dirty pain forever, but it is completely optional.
Back to my headaches: I had a miserable couple of weeks in April until I realized I was making a lot of dirty pain for myself.
I was spinning all kinds of stories that increased my physical pain—I don’t know about you, but my headaches get worse when I clench my jaw and bring my shoulders up to my ears, things I do when I’m stressed out by thoughts like:
• I’ll never get my work done now.
• What if these headaches never go away?
• My talk will be terrible because of this headache.
• I’m going to wake up with the headache again.
• How can I write anything when I feel this bad?
Luckily, once I realized I was creating dirty pain for myself, I was able to stop. I noticed what I was thinking and decided to focus on different thoughts:
• What can I do today to feel better?
• All is well.
• “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”
• I have a headache right now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t go away soon.
• All I have to do right now is breathe.
I’m not going to tell you my headaches disappeared as soon as I changed my thinking—that didn’t happen—but I did stop contributing to the headaches with my stress reaction (tight muscles, dry mouth, upset stomach,) so my experience of the headaches improved.
And, once I stopped focusing on all the stories I was telling myself about what was going to happen to me, I was able to focus on what I could do in the present moment to improve my headaches. In some moments, that meant putting a heated rice sock around my shoulders, in others it meant deciding to go to bed early.
Since then, my headaches have gotten much better. I still get them: They are “multifactorial,” as we say in medicine, meaning there are many causes that contribute to the development of them, but I have resolved one reason I used to get headaches by not adding dirty pain to the list of reasons I get them.
Think about something that causes you pain in your life.
Is it clean pain or dirty pain?
If it’s dirty pain, having that awareness alone may help diminish your dirty pain. If not, can you think of a better story to tell yourself about your pain? One that doesn’t cause you dirty pain?