As humans we have an unconscious mechanism that makes us run from pain. This affects a lot of our decisions. For example, a child who touches fire gets burned and learns not to touch it again. But the fear of pain can also make people stop achieving their dreams or refuse to take a risk for a better life.
It is typical that as a child we learn that to avoid getting burned we should not touch fire. However, as we grow we can make more informed decisions. For example, if our loved ones are in danger and we can save them only by crossing a layer of fire, we will get burned to do it. We are willing to go through the pain of being burned to avoid the pain of losing our loved ones.
It is very important to understand pain and discomfort if we want to have a better life — we must accept some pain to avoid a bigger pain.
For instance, the other day a woman came to me because she needed help. She said that she had been trying to lose weight as long as she can remember. I always listen attentively to my clients to understand their stories. She told me about what she thought were injuries.
I noticed that she had some beliefs about chronic injuries and regular activity (mild) injuries. A chronic injury is a serious problem like a joint dislocation while a regular activity injury is minor problem like a muscle spasm. A dislocation might require surgery and could affect a person for life. A muscle spasm is only a problem until the muscle releases, though that could be as long as two months.
She told me about her ankle injury, her back injury, her shoulder injury and her knee pain. She was telling me that each time she starts an activity such as dancing or biking she gets injured, and she backs off from physical activities within two weeks.
After she told me about all her injuries, she started to tell me about the discomforts from not exercising, such as knee pain when she climbs steps, difficulty getting up from a chair and other daily tasks.
She told me the story of her dad. Her dad is over 90, and he is completely independent. He exercises and stretches every day. He is in a nursing home. While he can perform physical tasks independently, his peers are using canes, chairs or walkers, even though some of them are younger than him.
She can see the suffering of these older adults, and she does not want to go through the same life, yet she feels that she is reaching that point in her 60s.
As I listened to her story I concluded that she was afraid of pain, and any pain she had she perceived to be an injury. I told her what I thought, and she started to make conclusions about what her dad and her sister (a fitness instructor) told her, which was the same message.
While it is smart to pay attention to pains that can lead to chronic injuries, it is also true that many pains are normal or may lead to only a mild injury.
For example, I had a client who had a lot of knee pain, and he went to see his doctor, who determined that he had some cartilage loose from an old car accident. On the other hand, I had another client who had a lot of knee pain, and she went to see therapists, doctors, chiropractors and orthopedists and never found anything wrong. Then we discovered that the only reason she had pain was because she had tight knees. As soon as she started stretching, the pain was gone.
I have been exercising for 17 years now. I have had many ailments — back injuries where I could barely walk or stand up out of a chair, knee pain, shoulder pain, elbow pain — and I always recuperate with no chronic issues. The only chronic problem I had was when I dislocated my knee by playing with my friends in Mexico, and after that I never had a chronic injury in the gym.
In other words, there are pains that we need to pay attention to that tell us there is something wrong with our body. However, there many other pains (not soreness) that we need to go through to continue improving our quality of life, which is something active people understand.
Running away from all pain may not be the smartest option we have. There are pains that are telling us that there is something wrong, and there are pains that are stopping us from becoming better.