Pain Is a Signal. Are You Listening?

“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

If you’ve been training for a while or you follow “fitspiration” accounts on social media, you’ve likely heard this phrase and all of its various incarnations many time over. Perhaps you too are motivated by the concept of being so hardcore that even pain doesn’t stop you.

The thing is, it should.

Pain, quite literally, is an important signal from your body that what is happening could cause harm. That sensation you feel - stabbing, searing, grinding, shooting? Your body has created a painful response intentionally to compel you to STOP. This is simply fact that isn’t as sexy as a flip phrase (nor does this explanation fit well on an Instagram image).

I often talk about the importance of challenging your limits and working within your #discomfortzone - a concept I wholeheartedly believe in. I have personally experienced the positive, life-changing effects of doing something that felt “discomfortable” or even downright scary. But let’s be clear: discomfort and fear are distinct from pain. An example of discomfort in a workout might be the tension you feel when you’re actively engaging every single muscle in proper form when deadlifting very heavy. Or it might be the trepidation you feel when you see double-unders on the WOD and (eeeek) double-unders are your nemesis. The first example is physical; the second is mental. Even tiredness can count as discomfort, and often straddles the line of physical and mental. Pain, on the other hand, hurts.

Your body is always trying to protect you (thank you, body!) and pain is designed to support you by telling you that greater injury is around the corner if something doesn’t change...stat. The most widely-used definition of pain is "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage."

While seeking out pain isn’t the goal, it does help to think of pain as a messenger that is trying to help you out. Do you want the message pain is trying to share with you, even if it is bad news? Because even if you ignore it, that message is still there, still true. Ignoring it does not make it untrue.

This concept of using pain as a valuable messenger is equally applicable outside of the gym. Life is a series of challenges, sometimes many at once. Living our life in the discomfort zone is one the best ways, IMO, to discover our limitless potential and live fully. Living a life without challenges or discomfort is not only impossible, but I’d bet that endeavoring to live such a life would actually create...pain.

Internal pain - mental, emotional, and/or spiritual - can be even more difficult to identify than physical pain. We have similar catchy phrases that society likes to toss around in an attempt negate the importance of our internal pain signals:

“Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

“It’s all in your head.”

“You’re crazy!”

Because we can’t see internal pain, it is easier to think it is made-up. Or perhaps we want to think it is made-up, because that is easier than dealing with the truth. Internal pain is sending the same signal that physical pain is: stop...or else. Often we attempt to numb our internal pain with things like excessive TV or social media, alcohol, drugs, diet or food fixation, overexercising - just to name a few. (No surprise here, but numbing is rarely a healthy activity.) Unheeded internal pain can lead to depression, anxiety, toxic or abusive relationships, addiction, even suicide. It is not to be taken lightly.

Your pain - any kind of pain - is a signal. What is it trying to tell you? If you shove it down, ignore it, or numb it long enough, what damage will you sustain?

Ignoring pain distances you from your instincts by teaching you not to trust your own internal signals both in workouts and in life. I often describe this process as “shedding light on darkness.” By simply turning our attention to our pain and recognizing it for what it is, we are aware and in a position to take proper action. It is hard to admit to pain because it often means a long journey of recovery ahead, and sometimes even our ego takes a hit. We may feel weak, ashamed, or simply frustrated by the reality of it.

But there it is: reality. We cannot hide from it (despite our best attempts), so I believe the empowered approach is to face it head-on. Anything else is simply sticking our head in the sand.

Take a few minutes to think. What are the pain points in your life right now - physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, other? Is there a message that pain is trying to send? Are you open to receiving it?

From there, action can be taken with understanding and awareness, and thus begins the path to recovery.