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  • Brian Pendergast

Why Do We Run From Pain?

Most of us do everything in our power to avoid pain, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. Pain represents a negative in our society; it is labeled as uncomfortable and void of any pleasure. When we experience pain, we try to control it and escape its terminal grasp. But, what if, instead of running from pain, we embraced it? Can pain take you further along your path than you have ever gone before?

"Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional."

We all experience pain in our lives, but it is our perception that steers us towards what happens next. We can choose to wallow in the pain, so much so that it turns into long-term suffering, chose to run from pain, wondering why we keep experiencing it, or we can choose to accept, evaluate, overcome, and prosper.

Physical pain has two responses: a biological response and a psychological response. Biologically, pain is signaled through the central nervous system, alerting us that something is awry. Our interpretation of the physical signal and how we react to pain is the psychological response.  For example, your team is running 100-yard sprints. On your twelfth sprint, you are tired. Your legs burn from the lactic acid build-up, your heart is pounding at 190 bpm, and you can’t get enough oxygen through your mouth fast enough. The physical exertion required to perform the remaining thirteen sprints is intense as your Sympathetic Nervous System is working on overdrive, and therefore, you are in an uncomfortable and even painful state. Do you allow the physical pain to slow you down, to stop putting in as much effort and intensity? Or do you let that pain exist, understanding it and not allowing it to have a negative psychological effect? If you’re really interested in maximizing your athletic and mental output, you learn how to turn that pain into a positive.

Mental and emotional pain carry similar biological and psychological responses as well. For example, you get cut from making a team that you worked really hard to make. This event is devastating to you so you experience grief and sadness. In turn, your negative thoughts about not making the team and the anguish you feel leads you to choose to not work as hard at your sport. Since you stopped working as hard as you once did, executing has now become more difficult and more physically exerting. This physical pain causes more negative thoughts and feelings of self-doubt start to creep in due to physical performance decreases. Your upcoming try-out for next year’s team is looming, increasing levels of psychological stress and anxiety. The endless cycle of pain continues. Any negative thoughts further perpetuate the angst of pain, be it physical or mental, turning a “bad” situation worse. This cycle then repeats itself as these negative thoughts feed on themselves in a twisted, self-fulfilled prophecy.

For those times where we try to control pain, avoid it, or allow it to be our breaking point, we experience a paralyzing effect that stunts our execution and even inhibits the amount of joy and happiness we experience. In the athletic world, athletes mentally give-in before reaching maximum physical exertion all of the time. Why does this happen so frequently? It is because our perspective views the tiring and trying experience as painful and uncomfortable and therefore bad/negative. So, we stop, justifying our decision with ourselves, saying and believing in things such as “that’s all I can do,” “that was good enough,” “I still did better than everyone else,” etc.

This is commonplace in non-athletic events as well. Whether at work or at school, we tend to give-in before reaching our true potential. Let’s say your teacher assigns you a project or your boss assigns you a report. You may view the project/report as boring, difficult, monotonous, time-consuming, or maybe a combination of the four. Again, our negative perspective then dictates our feelings of mental pain so we don’t go all in. We focus more on the discomfort of completing the task than the task itself, not allowing us to do our best work. Instead of being present and finding any value in what we are doing, we just look ahead to being done. These feelings towards pain transcend past the athletic fields, work, and school and into our personal relationships as well.

Choosing A Different Path

When we decide to approach our experience with pain differently, a new world of learning, growth, and positive adaptation opens to us. By accepting your pain (instead of smothering it or running from it) and understanding that your perspective dictates your relationship with pain and therefore your subsequent choices, good experiences can follow. Athletically, you work harder, longer, and smarter. Mentally, you experience a sense of greater accomplishment. Emotionally, with continued practice of adjusting your relationship with pain, you create more resiliency across all aspects of your life. The long-term effect of increased mental resolve and emotional resiliency creates grit.

Grit is the ability to deal with adversity in a positive and constructive manner; a display of perseverance or bouncing back from a set-back, let-down, or failure which in turn yields success. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that we will stumble or fall throughout our lives as life’s course does not come without difficulty. Not every practice, game, workout, assignment, task, or momentary experience is perfect. In fact, every moment in life is perfectly imperfect. Many times, these events will be painful to some degree, and we will experience some sort of short-coming or failure. However, it is in these times of fault that we gain the greatest opportunities to learn, grow, and move forwards. The sooner that we learn this and deal with this reality, the better. This is where we learn to cope, as athletes and as human beings. We learn to accept, adapt, and evolve so that we can reach our goals and live the lives that we want to live. It is up to us how long it takes to come back from any painful experience, and we determine our levels of success in all endeavors through conscious cognition. The later that we learn this skill set, usually the more catastrophic the experience. You don’t want to learn coping skills or perseverance for the first time in your freshman year of college ball when you are sitting on the bench because your spot has been taken by someone else or at your first real job when your boss tells you to work the weekend when you had plans with your friends. In either case, you’ll be looking for new employment rather quickly if you don’t have the ability to cope, persevere, and thrive under challenges. When we take the perspective that it is from pain and failure that guides us on the path to self-discovery, improvement, and growth, we change our relationship with pain so that we can use it to our advantage.

Using Pain

In order to be successful under most any circumstances, including dealing with the inevitability of pain, we need to be consciously aware of choice. We have a choice to either react or respond to any event in our life. If we react subconsciously: however we have learned to react is programmed in our brain and without cognitive reflection, we will respond accordingly. Unfortunately, we are often programmed to habitually avoid pain and discomfort, dodge personal accountability and reflection when it damages the ego, and justify our actions or inactions, which inhibits our ability to grow and produce productive resolutions. If we respond with cognitive thought and reflection: we consciously dig deeper into our thoughts and feelings, responding with appropriate actions that align with the success of our goals and tasks. Dr. Viktor Frankl is credited with saying:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When we respond rather than react, we actively change our perception and relationship with pain, discomfort, and failure. This changed relationship is the path to further self-discovery and improvement. We learn that we are strong enough to not only handle anything, but to thrive under seemingly difficult experiences. We learn how to mentally battle and implement positive energy into our lives. Instead of viewing pain as a negative, we see the positives it brings out in us. Pain can push you past what you thought your limits were with the right perspective. Pain can teach you about yourself and opens the door for you to make adjustments to how you are as a human being. Pain is calming, reflective, and strong, as long as you let it be that way. When practiced enough, pain is welcomed.

Some Practice Ideas

Changing your relationship with pain takes practice. Cognitive awareness is key to doing this. If you think it will be hard or difficult, then it will be. The truth is that your perspective not only dictates pain but also comfort and ease. Below are some ideas to help you get started with your relationship with pain:

Physical Pain-

Find something that you dislike about your training. When you experience pain from high level physical exertion, take a moment to look at it. We will use the 100-yard sprint example from earlier in this article, however, this can be used for any physically demanding task.

  1. Why are you in pain?

  2. How are you currently reacting to this pain?

  3. Are you trying to escape it? Are you putting energy towards ignoring it? Or are you counting down the reps until it is over?

  4. How is your current reaction making you feel and helping you to succeed? If it doesn't make you feel good and isn't helping you succeed, which if you answered yes to any of the previous questions would most likely be true, it is time to change our perspective.

  5. What positive can we find for being in pain? For example, sprints are designed to be physically exhausting, so by understanding that your body is working hard to complete the task well, you can find a positive that your athletic conditioning is improving. You can also find the positive that your level of mental resolve is increasing as you are willing yourself to complete these sprints past the point you once thought was your breaking point.

Once you find the positives of your pain, decide to stay with that perspective for each remaining rep. If need be, run though this same process after each repetition. Over time, with continued practice, your athletic conditioning and mental tenacity will grow and your positive perspective towards pain will become your new subconscious program.

Obviously, there is a difference between physical discomfort and pain due to high exertion and physical pain due to something being seriously wrong, like a broken bone, a ligament that is about to tear, etc. Part of being with pain is the objective analysis of why it is there. So please, don't misinterpret grit and accepting pain as "no matter what I need to keep going." Go beyond that and understand why you are experiencing pain and use your critical thinking skills to determine the path that will lead you to success.

Mental/Emotional Pain-

Find something that you dislike it your personal life. This could be anything from your work/school life, personal relationships, personal reflection in where you feel you have a deficiency or weakness, etc. We will use the example: "At times I am undriven and lazy." When we take a moment to look at our mental and emotional pain, ask the same questions as we did for physical pain.

  1. Why are you in pain? I feel badly how I am not working up to my potential.

  2. How are you currently reacting to this pain? I am trying to ignore it.

  3. How is you current reaction making you feel and thus, helping you to succeed? I don't feel good about myself and since I am running from this feeling, I leave this issue unresolved and allow it to be a reoccurring theme.

  4. What positive can we find in being in pain? This is a signal from my being that it is time to change the cycle. Instead of running from this discomfort, I will decide to make a positive change in my perspective. I will either decide to accept that at times I am undriven and adjust any expectations or feelings of negativity towards that, allowing myself to enjoy the down-time. Or, I will decide to positively and proactively change my actions each time I am being lazy and instead, do something productive no matter how big or small.

Pay attention and be aware each time you feel pain for the same reasons. Just like with physical pain, continued practice to improve upon mental resolve and emotional resiliency is necessary to obtain a positive perspective towards pain to produce productive and long-lasting growth.

A Matter of Perspective

As noted earlier, pain is a matter of perspective; it is relative, especially when talking about athletics. The next time you are in pain, think about this:

  • During your workout, be grateful for how much physical discomfort and pain you are experiencing due to your ability to actually perform the exercises. There are many people in this world who have suffered terrible injuries that have left them paralyzed and unable to do what you can do. Many of them would do anything to feel the pain you are feeling instead of their pain of not being able to do something they once could. Be grateful for what you can do.

  • After a bad game, take into perspective what the game actually meant. Odds are, this isn't life or death. You still get to go home where you will be fed, loved, and comfortable. Life is still good. Instead of being upset, be grateful for what you have and if the game really means that much to you, objectively analyze why the game turned out the way it did and what you can learn from this short-coming, altering your preparation for the next challenge.

  • It could always be worse. I personally enjoy reading books about WWII. I think they offer amazing insight into human nature and behavior. Many people overcame absolutely horrific, unimaginable events that demonstrate such a high level of mental strength and fortitude, and emotional resilience and courage. The hardships these people endured, along with any other times in history of genocide, war, hatred, and extreme poverty are probably greater than anything you will ever have to face in your life, so be grateful in your reflections. When things seem bad, remember that they are not that bad. Use these moments as opportunities to reflect and remember that you have the freedom to choose how you respond, and therefore, how you are.

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