Pain is something you cannot see, it is hidden. Something might look painful, but the sensations of both physical and psychological pain are invisible to everyone surrounding the sufferer. This can make it difficult to describe.
Pain is something we experience alone, although others can support us or suggest ways to treat it. Pain is often internalised, located firmly inside an individual’s mind or body.
What about emotional pain? Do we experience this ‘somewhere between the two’, connecting mind and body, as a bridge between thoughts and physical sensations? When it comes to pain, should we be trying to separate or bring together mind and body in the discussion?
We look at people who have gone through specific experiences, accidents or illnesses, or see certain bodies, with scars, evidence of injury, or plagued by illness, and associate them with the experience of pain, without understanding the pain itself. We might also associate pain with specific health conditions or illnesses. These associations are often based on assumptions unless we have had the same embodied experience ourselves. Having said this, one individual’s experience of something can be different from another’s; in some respects, we have no way of proving or disproving this, because we cannot possibly feel or sense somebody else’s embodied experience. Can you ever compare one experience of pain to another, when each happens within a different human body? Pain is relative.
These are not new ideas. The question of whether it could ever be possible – what it would be like and what the implications might be if we were able – to feel inside someone else’s body, in the ultimate vicarious experience of simulated stimulation, has been explored through various creative mediums; the 1995 film Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is one such exploration.
We can empathise with others to some extent (to what extent?), but how can we ever really know about something that is going on inside someone else’s mind or body? Would it help if we could understand or truly feel someone else’s pain? Would it make us more compassionate? Does it help the person suffering the pain to be able to describe it to someone else?
The task of understanding pain and its significance can be approached from many directions. In what ways is it important that we try and understand pain? Is it only important to take a medical stance on it? That is, to research how to treat pain and offer the human body relief from it.
Pain signals at their most basic are significant in that they alert us that something inside us is not right; we need to take action to help ourselves in some way. Pain is a warning sign. However, there is something beyond the need for us to know how to treat pain.
Pain also has a curious way of being hard to remember during moments when you are not experiencing it, but can be all-consuming for the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years in which it plagues you.
We all have our own personal experiences of pain. It comes in different forms, as the result of many things that happen to us throughout life. The effect of pain on our mind and body, and furthermore how we cope with pain, varies from person to person.
Pain is in many ways a central part of our experience of being human. Sometimes pain is exactly how we experience life.
We describe something as a ‘painful experience’, sometimes flippantly, sometimes seriously. Sometimes we use the phrase ‘painful experience’ to describe something that is literal, for example having an injection or getting stitches, or as a description of an unenjoyable task; for example, doing housework or talking to someone we don’t like. Sometimes the outcome of a painful experience will be negative, sometimes positive; pain resulting from an accident might signal life threatening injuries; some would view having a tattoo or ear piercings as worthwhile pain with a positive outcome.
These are some opening thoughts on pain. In PART 2, I will ruminate further about different types of pain. I will primarily be considering pain within the context of limb loss and phantom limb pain, prompted by research I am currently involved in. As well as thinking more about how people communicate pain and what barriers there are to this. Also, I will consider what actions I plan to take next as I continue to delve into this subject area in a bid to try and understand 1) more about the human experience of pain and 2) what impact pain, and how we understand it, can have on our lives and the ways we manage and express it to others.