Dogs, and Fear and Pain, Oh My!
Down the street from my home there is a house with two big dogs that get really high above their fence, and as you walk by, they lean over the fence bark maliciously.
It looks like they could easily jump over the fence.
I’m terrified to walk by the house with my two dogs picturing these two ferocious dogs getting out and attacking us.
So, for a long time I avoided walking by the house.
I would walk very far out of my way so that I didn’t have to walk by that house.
Then one day I was driving home past that house.
There was a man walking his dog very calmly by the house.
The two killer dogs were barking like crazy, leaning over the fence and it looked like they could almost touch the man and his dog.
I pulled over in my car to see what was going to happen ready to call 911.
The man and his dog just kept on walking.
The dogs were not able to reach them.
The man and his dog were safe.
Hmmm… maybe I didn’t need to avoid the house either?
I decided to try walking by the house (on the opposite side of the street of course, I’m not crazy!)
I gave my dogs a continuous stream of treats so they wouldn’t bark and escalate the situation as we walked by the crazy dogs leaning over the fence.
We made it!
Ok so I guess it’s ok to walk by the house…on the opposite side of the street, if I avoid all eye contact, walk quickly and give my dog tons of treats to distract them.
After doing this for a few months it occurred to me.
Those dogs aren’t dangerous to us.
We walk by all the time, they bark and lunge at us, but that’s it.
Nothing actually happens.
So yesterday I decided to actually look at the dogs.
Hmmm… I’m ok.
They’re not as scary as they seem.
My dogs are safe.
We are just walking by, and they’re just barking.
I thought about how this is such a great analogy for chronic pain.
We have theses sensations of pain, and they scare us, so we avoid them.
Because we are afraid that something must be very wrong if we’re having pain.
Because we don’t want the pain to get worse.
Because we’re afraid it’ll last forever.
We jump to conclusions about what the pain means, and we’re reflexively scared of it.
But the irony is that if we would just stop and give the sensations attention, we might realize that they aren’t nearly as scary as we thought they were.
But by avoiding them and immediately trying to make them go away, our brains get the message that something is
It is the fear of the pain that actually perpetuates the pain.
If we could find a way to not be afraid of the pain, then our brains would instead receive messages that it is safe, and the brain would be less likely to interpret the sensations from the body as pain.
How can we realize that the pain is not dangerous so we can stop “walking around it,” and look at the pain, allowing
us to realize it is not as scary as we’d feared?
First a great way to know the pain is not dangerous is to think of a time that your pain did not act like it usually does.
Maybe you always hurt when you walk but on one occasion you were walking with a dear old friend that you rarely see, and you forgot all about the pain.
Or maybe you notice that your pain is much worse when you are stressed, angry or tired.
Noticing that your pain changes is a great way to realize it’s not as dangerous as you thought it was.
You may even get brave enough to stop avoiding it and actually look at it.