Stoicism and Coping with Pain

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I don’t have chronic pain and wouldn’t know what people experience when having chronic pain, but I have had some painful experiences such as stomach surgery (once to fix my stomach and once to fix my hernia). Pain can be quite, well, painful. So how does Stoicism help relieve pain? Well, it doesn’t actually relieve pain, but it can help you cope with it and learn to live with it.

One important thing to realize is that your pain is outside of your control. It doesn’t help to want it to go way, or when it does go away, want it to never to return. You can find ways to relieve it, and science is getting better at relieving any and all pain. But if you have it and nothing is helping, the best thing to do is not to be frustrated by it. From a Stoic point of view, pain is an external (even if it’s in you) because it’s external to your judgment or intention and since it is an external is neither evil nor good. So you’ll have to learn to adjust your attitude towards pain because even though it’s not preferred (unless you’re into sadomasochism, then it is preferred), it’s not going to help to add frustration to your pain. Your pain is painful, but it’s not a bad guy.

So can you simply just learn to care less about pain? Well, we know that opiates don’t actually reduce pain but just make patients care less about their pain. So if opiates can change your judgment of your own pain and make you judge pain as nothing super important, then perhaps with a little bit of Stoic training, you can learn to feel indifferent to your own pain.

From my own experience with anxiety (the Epicureans thought of anxiety as mental pain), the way I dealt with it was to realize that if I screw something up, I’ll be embarrassed, I might even be fired from a screw up, but I can still be ok because as long as I care about my own virtue. It doesn’t matter if I lose my job or embarrass myself in front of a mass of people. All that matters is that I tried to do what was right in the situation. Regarding my regret, I learned to understand that it makes sense that I made the mistakes I made in the past, I was a mess and I thought I was doing things the way I should even if I was wrong or foolish. It’s not easy to learn to stop fearing the future and regretting the past, but if you remind yourself that you lacked wisdom in the past, and that if you mess up in the future you can still be all right, then you can move on from anxiety and regret.

I feel like pain is similar. You feel pain in a specific spot in your body or it radiates throughout your body, but if you treat it like I did my anxiety, maybe it won’t matter even though it follows you wherever you go and right up until you go to sleep. I don’t have all the answers, but that might be a place to start. But obviously, if you can find a way to relieve your own pain physically and medically, definitely do do that. Pain can sometimes be a symptom of a greater illness, so if you have pain that’s not going away and you don’t know why, please see a doctor.

By Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

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