The Painful Polar Bear

Here’s a neat little experiment: for the next 30 seconds, don’t think of a white polar bear.

"Hold on, I'm warming up."

“Hold on, I’m warming up.”

Okay, now that you’ve failed, let’s ramp it up a bit. Suppose a white polar bear is now chasing you (please, do not actually get yourself into this situation). Do you think if someone told you to not think about the bear, you’d be able to accomplish the task? Not likely. And odds are, if you tried, the damned bear be gnawing on you right soon.

So it is when we, those helpful people, tell those suffering from pain to “not think about it.”
See, there’s this thing called “ironic process theory” as put forth by social psychologist Daniel Wegner. You can read up more on Wikipedia, but the basic idea is the harder you try to suppress a thought, the more persistent the thought becomes. Just as you’ll spend more time thinking about bears when you’re trying not to, so it is when we try to suppress any thought.

Of course, for as hard as it is to not think of something, it certainly is harder when the very thing you’re attempting to mentally avoid is coming right for you or, in the case of pain, already on top of you. And the brain is a sadistic son of a bitch, too. The more you try to forget about it, the more your brain likes to think of every little nuance.
Alright, so, the point’s been made, but what can we do about it? Unlike the polar bear, unless one is extremely unlucky, we’ll never have to worry about it chasing us every damn day. So long as we don’t actively avoid the thought, nor actively seek it, the worst the bear will be is a passing thought. At best, nothing at all. But pain, chronic pain more so, is different. That tends to stick around. What can we do about that?

Well, not much. However, according to the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, the best thing may actually be reflection.

Burkeman wrote that those that tend to think about their own deaths at least a couple minutes everyday become more accepting and at ease with death. Sure, it may not be the most cheerful thing to think about, but the more one reflects on it, the less power the fear of death has over a person. While it won’t exactly lead a person to happily embrace death, it will make it easier when one has to face, either in passing or head on.
Now, this idea can work on anything rather unpleasant. Rather than running away from the pain, reflect on it, even for a few minutes. No, you won’t start looking forward to the pain and it won’t make it any less intense. It’s not about changing how you feel the pain. It’s changing how you feel about the pain. The more emotional calm you have, the easier it is to take and, hell, may even build up some mental resistance towards any pain in general.

Now, simple as it sounds, doesn’t make it easy. It’s not fun to think about unpleasant things. We’d all much rather avoid it, thank you very much. But, like death and most other unpleasant things, pain is unavoidable. No amount of wishful thinking has ever stopped a person’s pain. And it certainly won’t make pain easier to cope with. But if you have no choice either way, the person who can accept the problem with a calm mind will be better off than the person who gets tossed about an emotional storm. Because, really, do you need any more problems when being chased by a polar bear?


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