Monday, March 18, 2013

When to Kill the Pain

I once went to the doctor because of a headache that had lasted a long time. When the nurse asked if I had taken anything to relieve the pain and I said no, she looked at me like I was stupid. I didn't take any painkillers because I figured that a pain in my head could be serious and I didn't want to lose track of it. It's the same reason that I didn't take any medicine for my sprained ankle until after I got it examined - I needed to be able to tell the nurse where it was hurting in order to get it treated properly. My head turned out to be fine, but it got me thinking about pain, and how we try to stop it.  Pain serves an important function - it tells us to stop doing what we're doing so that we don't damage our bodies further. It tells us to fix what hurts.

In Happiness and Individual Needs, I explained how the standard advice on feeling better - exercise, go outside, meditate, etc. - didn't work for me in college. The reason these things didn't work was that they didn't solve my problems. I understand that exercising and being outside make people feel better. I can understand recommending these activities to someone who is just feeling down or dragging for no apparent reason, if you know that they will enjoy these activities. But in my case, there was an apparent reason. I missed my parents, my home, having time to myself - and a rush of endorphin can't fix those problems any more than cough syrup can cure strep throat. People got annoyed that when I felt better temporarily, I always ended up back where I started. But that was because all the suggested remedies - even those coming from counselors - were just painkillers. Obviously when a painkiller runs out, the pain is going to come back.

All the temporary relief I got in college made me numb to how big the problem was.  I was a senior by the time I realized that I was right along - I should have left the school after my first semester. Most injuries - both physical and emotional - are going to require some kind of painkiller, but just make sure that while the wound is numb, it is actually healing.

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