It struck me recently that it is often the little things that really matter to us: the unexpected smile from a stranger, a thoughtful card from a friend, a small kindness like letting someone go before you in the supermarket. These small things can really buoy us up and make us feel good.
But unfortunately, we all know only too well that it works the other way too: that person who doesn’t thank you when you’ve pulled over for them; a lorry driving through a puddle and soaking you; a sharp remark from someone you didn’t expect. All these can really affect our mood and alter our perception of the day. In fact, somehow, they seem to cancel out the good stuff.
You may already be aware that we are more likely to remember these negative things. It’s called the negativity bias. Studies have demonstrated that when people are shown images of positive, negative and neutral things they will always react most strongly to the negative images. It is thought that as the brain’s primary role is to protect us from danger it is particularly sensitive to negative situations. The idea being that we avoid these ‘harmful’ situations in the future and stay safe. We are hard-wired for negativity.
You won’t be surprised to know that the same goes for our experience of pain too. We are far more likely to remember episodes of pain as opposed to pain-free times. Again, for reasons of protection. It is not uncommon to hear people report that they have been in pain all day but on further questioning often it turns out that they had a handful of triggers of pain and the rest of the time they were quite comfortable.
So, what can we do about this annoying propensity to remember negativity and pain? It’s obviously there for a good reason – to protect us from danger – but is there anything we can do to reduce its affect on our overall experience?
- Focus on the good – Little things is the title of this blog so let’s start there. Can you start by focusing on the good things that happen and really tune in to how they make you feel? That lovely sensation of the warm sun on your face on a beautiful spring day. Where in your body do you feel that? Can you take a snapshot of it with your mind that you can store for later use? You may have heard of gratitude journals? Spending time to write down things you are grateful for in life? This may sound rather simplistic but there is evidence that actively spending time to record whatever you are grateful for in life can help to boost emotions and reduce pain.
- Pay attention: We notice the painful times but can you train yourself to notice the pain-free times or occasions when you just feel neutral? This could help to redress the balance and enable you to realise that perhaps that ‘bad day’ may have contained many pain-free, comfortable times. One way to achieve this is by checking in with your body several times throughout the day and cultivating some bodily awareness. For example, after cleaning your teeth ask yourself “What am I aware of?” Briefly scan down from your head to your feet. You may be surprised to notice you are pain-free or do not feel much at all. If you do feel pain can you spend a moment to ‘look at it’ for a moment, in your mind. Simply observing in an interested way can reduce the threat, thereby reducing the power of pain. Just watch for a while, take a couple of breaths, relax the area as much as you can and continue with your day.
- Work on what you CAN do (rather than what you can’t) – Again, it’s little things that make the difference here. Think of an activity you haven’t been able to do recently. Nothing too outrageous but perhaps you feel it is just out of reach. Now think of something that you CAN achieve? This might be the same activity broken down into chunks or slower; or a similar but less intense activity. For example, if you’re not up to running can you do a brisk walk? Plan for a distance that would be a challenge but achievable. You may experience a little pain but can you feel into this a bit? Just come up to the boundaries of that pain and feel what is going on. I don’t mean ignore the pain, just observe it, feel it and don’t fear it. You may be surprised at what you can do if you try this. By breaking an activity into chunks it immediately feels more achievable. And by achieving these smaller goals you boost your confidence to move onto the next challenge.
By making some small but regular changes to your routine it is possible to change one’s perception of pain. This is the first step to being in control of your body and becoming pain-free. Have a go and let me know how you get on!