The Power of Pain and Habit
How Cultivating the Positive & Nixing the Negative is critical to leading a healthier, happier, more fulfilled life.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up? Does your mind feel rested? How does your body feel? How do you feel about heading into the day?
The importance of feeling, and your conscious acknowledgement of it, is the first step to feeling better. This may to some initially seem counterintuitive - perhaps you are suffering with pain, fatigue, stress, or injury? You wonder how focusing attention on pain can bring about healing, or feel more pain simply at the thought. This can be a difficult situation to deal with, particularly when simultaneously faced with all of life's other priorities and concerns.
Momentarily diving deep into your pain is the necessary sacrifice that you must make for long-term wellness. Whether it be physical, emotional, or situational, the path to healing is forged by delving directly into the root of the feeling. Ask yourself: 'What is the source? When did I begin feeling this way? How has it affected other areas of my life, mind, and body? Am I in control of this?' This process of "talking" to yourself is the foundation of understanding and reconnecting to your mind and body.
However significant or insignificant the presence of pain in your life, the awareness of feeling by every human is vital to determining your current state and living a genuinely present life. If you feel hungry, what is the source of this hunger? What are your resources? How does this make you feel about your ability to care for your body? If you feel joyful, what is the source of your joy? How can you extend this happiness to other areas of your life? If you feel distracted, what is occupying your mind? What do you find yourself escaping to? Escaping from? How is this affecting your life?
Am I in control of this?
The habit of feeling is just one of billions of actions or attentions that you can dedicate to living a fuller life. Whether we realize it or not, we all have habits, routines, go-to's, and comforts. These can be either the most empowering or and uplifting, or debilitating and repressing tools in our emotional arsenal.
It is important to first think about how you spend your day. Perhaps you have settled into a daily rhythm with set responsibilities and expectations? Or maybe your schedule is irregular, with each day bringing its own unexpected moments? A little (or a lot) of both? Consider everything, from your morning bathroom routine (yes, your bowel movements included!); to your breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacking schedule, or lack thereof; to your level of physical activity; and to the ways that you occupy your free time.
"The habit loop is a three-part process. First, there's a cue, which is kind of a trigger for an automatic behavior to start unfolding... There's a routine, which is the behavior itself ... and then there's a reward, which tells our brain whether we should store this habit for future use or not."
- NPR with Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit
At times, our brains will urge us to engage in habits, thoughts, and behaviors, even if we are aware of the certainty of their associated negative consequences. A good example of this mindset is when faced with the dilemma of "eat the cookie or don't eat the cookie?" (stay tuned for blog post: "Letting Go of Guilt & Nurturing Healthy Relationships with Food"). If your grounded mind tells you to avoid the indulgence, yet you eat the cookie anyways, the short-term hit of dopamine (one of the brain's neurotransmitters that contributes to feelings of pleasures and satisfaction as part of the reward system) that you receive from this behavior only continues to reinforce a cycle of self-sabotage.
The beautiful silver lining: it's never too late to break the cycle, no matter how impossible, scary, or time and energy-consuming it may feel in your present moment of suffering. Return to reflection. How do you react when things do not go to plan? What practices do you have in place to support your goals? What crutches are you leaning on that get in the way of this? Are your mechanisms of reinforcement for these habits positive or negative?
Imagine in your mind the habits that bring you the most calm, peace of mind, and long-term wellness. Are these currently a regular part of your life? Now imagine the habits that influence negative behaviors and emotions. How much time and energy do you devote to dwelling on, worrying about, and manifesting these things? Anecdotal evidence on manifestation suggests that simply picturing and embodying your visions of success and happiness can influence the likelihood of the desired outcome. Be this entirely scientifically factual or not, there is no denying the power of positivity.
According to the National Institutes of Health:
"Positive emotions expand our awareness and open us up to new ideas, so we can grow and add to our toolkit for survival... people need negative emotions to move through difficult situations and respond to them appropriately in the short term, but they can get us into trouble if they’re based on too much rumination or excessive worry and are not really related to what’s happening in the here and now.
People who are emotionally well, experts say, have fewer negative emotions and are able to bounce back from difficulties faster. This quality is called resilience."
Following the path to cultivating wellness is not to deny or embrace pain, but to understand its origin and develop the healthy coping mechanisms and, eventually, the habits that strengthen your resilience. The inevitable mental arguments of time, fatigue, injury, etc. create roadblocks that require a specialized and heightened focus on your ultimate goals and long-term happiness. What will initially feel to be a sacrifice to your daily life and comforts will, with time and dutiful attention, ultimately shape your journey to true happiness.
Your journey requires strong self-discipline and an objective, judgement-free mindset that will allow you to identify the necessary changes that need to take place in your life. This is not easy, but no one else will do it for you. And no, it cannot wait until tomorrow.
Forbes lists the "Seven Early Morning Routines Used By Highly Successful People," which include:
Setting your alarm clock every day at the same time (and especially, getting enough quality sleep!)
Starting the day with a couple of minutes of meditation
Establishing a morning workout routine
Sitting down for breakfast with loved ones
Devoting time for self-learning
Saying 'good morning' to people on the way to work
Starting the workday by writing a to-do list
Finding and planning opportunities to practice positivity each day gives you that same dopamine boost as eating the cookie, except in this instance, the dopamine boost is far more sustainable in terms of the longevity of your wellness and happiness. Those who believe that you should "take time to smell the roses" and say that "it's the little things" are truly onto something powerful. Habits that promote a positive sense of self-worth and image are countless and vary from person to person. Perhaps you would like to spend more time reading, practicing jiu-jitsu, being outdoors, or taking baths. Perhaps you would like to cut out certain negative behaviors or elements of your life. Just remember: your path is your own.
No matter where your self-reflection guides you, it is critical to fill your arsenal with as much positive ammunition as possible when embarking on such a complex emotional endeavor. Increasing amounts of research over the past few decades point to the evidence and overwhelming public support behind meditation and mindfulness practices.
A Wake Forest University Study discovered that, "by activating and reinforcing some areas of the brain used in pain processing, meditation has the overall effect of helping to reduce pain intensity in patients." Additionally, according to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "Mindfulness meditation was associated with statistically significant improvement in depression, physical health-related quality of life, and mental health-related quality of life."
The concepts of meditation and mindfulness can sometimes be met with confusion, apprehension, or derision. Mindful Magazine does a wonderful job of breaking down the concepts and offering simple ways to begin to develop your understanding and practice. Next time you find yourself thinking, "I'll try meditating later" or "I don't have time to meditate right now", recall the cookie scenario.
Paying attention to how you feel in order to determine your needs is the first rung of the ladder. Imagine climbing each subsequent rung as you master your discipline and establish positive habits in your daily life. The journey may be slow-moving in the beginning, but as you grow stronger, you climb quicker. And how beautiful the view is at the top.