Much of our pain and suffering in life comes from the past or the future. You studied really hard for an exam, but you didn’t get a good grade (problem of the past). You are worried that despite all your efforts, you wont do well on your exam (problem of the future). You’re annoyed at your husband because he disrespected you in front of his family (problem of the past). You’re dreading a visit from your in-laws (problem of the future).
This is not to say that problems in the present do not exist, however, we would save ourselves a lot of stress if we stopped ruminating over past and future problems. Think about it. You stress over an exam before you take it, and you stress about it after you take it. However, for those two hours when you’re actually sitting down and taking the test, how much are you really stressing over it? Not much. Why? Because when you are taking the exam, all you are focusing on is the exam. The exam is difficult and you do not have the mental capacity (or the time) to worry. All you are doing is focusing. In other words, you are engaged.
When you’re so immersed and engaged in an activity physically, cognitively, and/or emotionally that it requires your complete attention, you do not have the mental capacity to focus on your past, future, or even present pains. All you are focused on is the the one thing that you are doing which is demanding so much attention.
What I have learned over time is that focusing intensely and being fully immersed in the thing you are doing in the present moment is an extremely effective way to decrease pain and suffering to the point where I would say it is almost medicinal.
Engagement to Alleviate Pain Symptoms
When you are completely focused on the task at hand or on the event that is going on right now, you are focused completely on the present moment. As a result of this, you cannot be bothered by pains of the past or future. For example, I am not anxious about my presentation next week (a pain of the future) because I’m in the middle of playing a basketball game with my friends and am focused right now only on the game itself. I am not sad about the fact that my friend moved away because I am mid-conversation with her on the phone about a topic that we both are extremely passionate about. If the thing you are doing requires all your mental and possibly even physical energy, you just do not have the mental capacity to be bothered by what happened before or what will happen in the future.
The interesting thing about some pains, however, such as physical pains, is that they are present-oriented pains. For example, my neck is hurting extremely badly right now. My leg is bothering me and it is difficult to walk in the present moment. However, even with pains that are present-oriented, the reason they often become almost unbearable is that they demand our mental attention. We’re focusing on them. The pain is neutral, however, we are making a mental acknowledgement of that pain as unpleasant.
While engagement can not get rid of your pain entirely, it can certainly alleviate some of the symptoms you are having. For example, if your neck is hurting, but you’re in the middle of giving a presentation at work, you’re probably not focusing on it very much during that time period. That’s the beautiful part about engagement. It zaps your energy on the activity you are engaged in at the moment which doesn’t give you enough mental capacity energy to focus on the pain you have.
How to use engagement to decrease pain.
- Do something that requires your complete attention. Watching TV or doing something passive not going to work because it does not require your full attention. Even doing something active, such as walking, may not work because it’s passive in terms of mental activity.
- Try something challenging. Engagement is usually a result of a balance between the challenge of the activity you are doing and the skill level that you have. This is often referred to as “flow”. When you’re in flow, you’re in the zone. You’re so focused that you even forget about yourself in that very moment. This level or type of engagement can only happen when you do something that challenges you. Challenge yourself too much and you’ll get anxious. Not enough and you will get bored. Find that balance.
- Do something that matters. Engagement at work decreases when you feel your work lacks meaning. The same goes for hobbies and other activities – if we feel that they lack meaning, we tend to feel disengaged which will make us focus on our pain more. If we do something that matters, something greater than ourselves, then we will not focus on our own pains.
- Engage with other people. I have had instances in the past where I was living by myself and was physically in pain. I was all alone and was getting anxious about my health. I couldn’t stop focusing on my neck pains – it hurt a lot! What made things far worse was that I could not distract myself. TV was not working. I didn’t have any work to keep me occupied (it was a weekend). However, what I found was that when I interacted with someone outside, for those moments, I forgot about my pain. When I got back to my apartment, I still felt the high of that interaction and momentarily felt better. Interactions with others, regardless of whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, can have powerful effects.