How to Distinguish ‘Clean’ from ‘Dirty’ Pain

Drawing a line between physical symptoms and the emotions we attach to those sensations is a helpful framework for healing anything from an injury to the common cold.

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Posted in , Mar 8, 2018

Tips when you're sick

Around day three of any cough, cold or other winter illness, I have a moment when I declare to my husband that I have officially entered the WZ (whining zone).

The good news is that I recognize my own behavior and am motivated to change it. But the bad news is that I genuinely do feel blue, down and worried during those WZ days.

I recently discovered the idea that there’s a distinction between “clean” and “dirty” pain, and I’m using it to approach everyday ailments with a little more grace and even positivity. Maybe it can help you too—especially with cold and flu season continuing to wreak havoc nationwide.

“Clean” pain is accurate, descriptive and symptom-specific. Examples of clean pain include: “I have a headache.” “I slipped on the ice and bruised my leg.” “My sinuses are congested.”

“Dirty” pain is emotional. It attaches thoughts, predictions and narratives to pain that would otherwise be clean. For example: “What if this headache is a sign of something more serious?” “Of course I slipped on the ice—I’m so clumsy.” “With this stuffy nose, my weekend will be ruined.”

It’s human nature that we tell ourselves stories about common ailments and discomforts. There are even ways in which such storytelling can be helpful—if we can trace a recent blip in our eating or sleeping habits to lower immunity, for example, we might make a healthy effort to get back on track. But it’s all to easy to slip from motivating self-care into a “dirty pain” mentality of blaming ourselves for uncomfortable problems that are beyond our control.

Diane MacKinnon, a physician and life coach, offers some helpful tips for keeping pain “clean.”

--Notice your “dirty pain” thoughts, and identify them as such.

--Intentionally shift your focus away from “dirty” pain self-talk.

--Adopt a curious mindset toward your pain, asking, “What can I do to help myself feel better right now?”

--Choose a simple mantra, like “all is well,” to repeat to yourself each time you feel your thoughts moving in the “dirty pain” direction.

--Take deep breaths, focusing on the sensations your breathing bring into your body.

Do you find the distinction between “clean” and “dirty” pain to be helpful? 

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