Fine day several years ago, when my son was still a baby, my wife and I took him to lunch f § along with her parents. We propped him in a high chair and ordered a variety of healthy choices off the menu. Once the food came out, we cut up the fruit, bread, and turkey so he could chew them, but my son was having none of it. The more we tried to feed him, the louder he howled. And the more he screamed, the more embarrassed his dear old dad got because I was certain he was disturbing everyone else’s lunch.
Sure enough, an elderly lady sitting by herself at the adjacent table leaned over and barked at me, “He is telling you what he wants! Don’t you get it? ”
Being first-time parents, my wife and I were baffled. Our son wasn ’t old enough to talk. How did this complete stranger know what he was saying? She pointed to a pile of potato chips and told us that was what he was asking for. It turned out she was spot on. Once we started feeding our son potato chips—the only unhealthy item on the plate, and the one thing we were trying to avoid—he settled down, happy as a clam, and calm was restored to the restaurant.
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Clearly, I needed help in understanding what my son was experiencing and what he needed to feel better.
The “pain brain” can become a dark place, difficult to understand for those in pain and those treating pain. Part of the challenge in healing it involves unraveling the mysteries hidden deep within a person’s suffering. There lie deep-seated emotions that are often very difficult for pain patients to address, describe, or even acknowledge. Frightened by these super-charged feelings, those in pain can build up powerful subconscious walls to protect themselves, blocking their awareness of these emotions, which continue to percolate inside. But the negative feelings act like heavy weights, preventing them from rising above their struggles.
Fortunately, what is difficult to communicate in words can often be expressed through other creative outlets, such as art, music, and dance. These creative outlets can help break through subconscious barriers, heal the “pain brain” by dialing down the perception of pain, boost mood, and otherwise reduce the distressing aspects of the chronic pain experience.
What you learn in this chapter can also become a key step to building your resilience, one of the keys to better pain management. In Chapter 5, we talked about how to improve resilience in several ways: by finding meaning in adversity, building optimism, accepting change, moving toward goals, and connecting with other positive people. Now we can add one more important item to the list: igniting therapeutic creativity.