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What I've Learned
I dreamed of headhunters who kept poking my cheek with spears.
Yesterday, I had three teeth pulled. Two on the right, one on the left. All three were broken beyond repair – the result of childhood fillings gone bad.
The dentist wanted to extract the two on the right, then have me come back in a few weeks to take care of the one on the left.
"I'm here, I'm in the chair," I told him, "let's do all three at once."
"We'll see how it goes," he said, looking doubtful.
The two right-side extractions went quickly.
"Are you sure you want to do the left side now?" he asked.
I was biting down on a wad of gauze, so gave a small nod and a thumbs up.
He numbed the left side, and before long the problem tooth there was out as well.
The procedures were painless, though not particularly pleasant. While he was working on me, I did some deep, slow breathing and made a conscious effort to relax.
By the time I got home – my dentist is in Lewiston – the numbness had worn off and pain had set in. It radiated in fierce, relentless waves from the extraction sites up either side of my head.
Inspired by how successful I'd been at relaxing in the dental chair, I decided to try some mental pain control.
I was snug on the couch with pillow and quilt, attempting to do some writing. I set aside paper and pen and began breathing deep. I relaxed my head, my face, my neck, my shoulders, my arms, by hands, my torso, my legs, my feet.
I pictured myself on a sunny, tropical beach, listening to the lapping of waves on the sand. I smelled the salt air. I imagined the pain being replaced by the gentle warmth of the sun.
After about ten minutes of this, I gave up, went to the medicine cabinet, and took a strong pain killer.
I returned to the couch and waited for the throbbing to fade. Soon, I fell asleep and dreamed of headhunters who kept poking my cheek with spears.
Can mental techniques control pain? And if so, why had my efforts failed?
There is plenty of evidence that mental pain management works, just as there is plenty of evidence that people can learn to play the piano.
If I decided, without prior training, to play a Chopin polonaise, the results would be laughable. Chopin takes practice. So, apparently, does pain management.
Those who have the most success at mental pain management are those with chronic pain.
I read of a soldier who broke his back in a parachute jump and was in constant pain for years afterward. Being a manly sort of man, he felt he should be able to simply ignore the pain, but it would not be ignored. All sorts of treatments and therapies were tried without success.
It wasn't until he began meditating, learned some visualization techniques, and practiced them in 30-minute sessions several times a week that, little by little, he was able to focus on things in his life other than the pain. The pain didn't go away, but his attitude toward it changed, and he was able to ignore it in ways he hadn't been able to before.
The success he had in his practice sessions, he transferred to day to day situations such as working or talking or eating, shutting down his awareness of the pain for awhile.
There are many techniques for mental pain management, and people often try a number of different ones before finding what works best for them.
The lying on the beach technique I tried was not taught me by a pain management professional. I just sort of made it up.
And my headhunter dream? It was probably not inspired by my visualization nor by my extractions, but by a ballpoint pen that ended up between my face and the pillow.