Affect tolerance is all about learning to tolerate chronic pain. It’s a big topic, especially around mindfulness practitioners, because being mindful can help someone learn to be OK with chronic pain – even love it!
Having a mindfulness practice helps in at least three ways: it helps us bear pain, it helps us accept aspects of ourselves that we try to ignore (which only serves to intensify the pain), and it helps us adjust our priorities to those that are more in line with life and wellness.
- It helps us bear pain. Often when we’re in pain, we make it much worse with our self-talk. “This is intolerable!” “I just can’t do anything with this pain and it makes me so angry!” – are two examples of how we can make the pain we feel remain centre-stage. Learning to separate our negative and un-helpful self-talk from the actual sensations not only provides some objective detachment, but also calms the talk. This can very effectively reduce the actual sensation of pain. You can see this yourself the next time you feel a pain, say, in your hip: sit in a way that supports that painful part of your body, close your eyes, and breathe. Then go to the actual area of pain, and imagine breathing right into that area – without attempting to alter the sensation; simply breathing into it; being with it. Do this for a few minutes and notice if there are any changes in the sensation as a result. Most often, you will notice there is a change – a diminishing or softening of the sensation.
- It helps us accept ourselves as a whole, instead of limiting that acceptance to certain parts of ourselves. Pain can be a “pain”, but it can also be a friend – by telling us when we’ve gone too far. As we age, our bodies become increasingly limited in their ability to respond to our demands. Instead of fighting this, honoring what our body is able to do – and not able to do – is going to make us – ultimately – more content, moving from self-judgment and self-criticism to self-appreciation and support.
- It helps us adjust our priorities – to those that better serve us. This is closely linked to self-acceptance, and is really an extension of that idea: comparison to others who we judge as more fit or less in pain can only lead to misery. For instance, I can compare myself to my slim friend who can eat anything she wants, then judge myself wanting because I can’t eat anything I want without gaining weight and adding pressure to my knees. Or, I can chose to focus instead on my successes – my depth of knowledge on what truly nourishes me, for instance; which I have only because I must watch what I eat. My priority can be to be ‘better than’, or it can be to be healthy and happy with what I have. My choice.
My mother, for a number of reasons, had severe osteoporosis in her old age. Because of this ailment, she had trouble walking and was almost constantly in pain. At first she fought it and ultimately made things worse by doing so. Then she learned to accept and live with it, getting on with her life as best she could. She didn’t have a mindfulness practice – not much was known about mindfulness in the Western world at that time – but she did learn to really appreciate what was available to her, along with her limitations. I can only wonder now what having a practice could have done for her.
Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist. To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .