Hello Dear One!  

What happens to you when pain appears? For me, pain creates a sharp focus on that sensation and everything else fades into the background. Often, the sharp focus then turns into panic. Next, I turn on my can-do, “control-meister” self, with the single-minded goal of making the pain go away.

I used to have tension headaches all the time – I grew up with them. It’s funny, the doctor told me they were tension headaches, and that was good news – at least they weren’t migraines. But I never knew how to get rid of the tension, or that it was even possible.

I Hold Onto Stress

Gradually, over the years, and especially since I started yoga at age 50, I have learned that I hold onto stress habitually. I have learned how to predict situations that will cause my trapezius muscles to tighten up like a vice grip, cutting off blood flow to my brain, creating a slow pulsing, pounding pain at my temples that circles down behind my ears and takes up residence at the back of my neck.

Potato Chips Solved One Problem But Invited Emotional Eating

My earliest response to this pain was to eat potato chips. Looking back, I can see how my lifelong emotional eating began. Once, when I was quite young, sitting at the kitchen table, my head pounding in pain, I looked at a bag of Lay’s Chips that had not yet been put away from my Mom’s trip to the grocery store. It spoke to me. Pretty soon, I had ripped it open and begun munching.

I had some alone time with the chips, before my mother came in and, with a huff, retrieved this bag, which was meant for a special family event. I discovered something that startled me. For a brief moment, my headache went away. I didn’t understand why, but a Pavlovian connection had been made.

I now know that the chewing movement released my jaw, or masseter muscles, which are connected to other muscles, like the temporalis muscle at the forehead, and the sternocleidomastoid muscle which connects the traps to the muscles around the neck, face, and head.

My Tension Was More Than Tight Muscles

But, what caused the tension in the first place? Most likely, it was a shoulder breathing pattern in which I lifted my shoulders as I breathe, tightening my trapezious and other neck and shoulder muscles. But the tension wasn’t only a matter of tight muscles.

These tight muscles were symptoms or clues to my own very real anxiety. I was an anxious child, always fussing and worrying. I asked my teachers a thousand questions about what was expected for this assignment or that.

By late adolescence and high school, I was socially distressed. I can still remember feeling like such an outsider in the girls’ bathroom. The popular, well-dressed girls entered as a gaggle of Peter Pan collars in pastel prints and tastefully coordinated skirts. They talked only among themselves and I busied myself drying my hands, hoping only to stay invisible.

Of course, I couldn’t see myself back then. Instead, I thought there was something magical about potato chips – the salt, the crunch, the satisfaction, the distraction.

I was partly right. Something relieved the headache, but I thought that simply eating was that something. So, I went from potato chips, to ice cream, to popcorn, and other cold or crunchy treats.

The combination of social distress, headaches, and comfort food became a life-long strategy.

Uncomfortable Social Situations Were Also Unspeakable

My pain was never only, or simply, pain. It emerged, for me, out of a social situation for which I felt completely unprepared. I could not speak this discomfort to myself or others. I had no models for such a conversation and, in my family, at least, it simply wasn’t done.

So, I held the feelings in and in doing so, my muscles tightened. When I felt the pain begin, that was one thing. But then, I had a reaction to the pain – panic. Now there was an additional piece – the fear that the pain would not go away. But I had a solution – eating. And so, a comradeship was born that is with me to this day.

What Happens When We Feel Pain

In the next few blogs, I hope to write much more about what happens to us when we feel pain – in different situations and for different reasons. Today’s story was just a starting point. And, I hope to offer some videos that explore some of the approaches I now take that help me to unpack the sorts of emotional baggage that rides along with pain as we move ahead on our life journeys!

Please let us know how you respond to pain and what this blog has brought up for you. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Love and Gratitude,

AnnMerle

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