Tiny Wisdom: Avoiding the Urge to Numb Pain

“Suffering is not caused by pain but by resisting pain.” -Unknown

The other day I was watching TV when one of those pharmaceutical commercials came on.

You know, the kind that shows a blissful looking woman running through a field of flowers while a voiceover extols the virtues of some drug—and then concludes with a list of possible side effects, including tremors, agitation, drowsiness, nausea, diarrhea, hair loss, blurred vision, night sweats, blood clot, stroke, and in some cases, death.

It might have been for psoriasis or restless syndrome; regardless, I found myself wondering if solving one of these unpleasant but non-life threatening problems was actually worth the risk of so many more uncomfortable, and in some cases, dangerous ones.

Then I started to think about how this type of thinking often prevails in everyday life, when a drink, a cigarette, or a bucket of chicken can seem like a quick fix for an unpleasant feeling.

While any of these things might provide relief in the present, they open us up to a great deal of potential pain in the future.

I’ve turned to all of these crutches at different points in my life; and despite making tremendous progress over the years, sometimes it still takes a conscious effort to resist instant gratification when I’m hurting.

It can feel like a reflex—I want this feeling to end, and I know exactly the fix that will numb it.

What we don’t always remember in that moment when we reach for the pill—whatever it may be—is that dulling the symptom rarely removes the cause. It’s really just an avoidance tactic. It’s a way to feel better right now without doing anything to help you feel better on the whole.

It may dull the pain of a fight, but it doesn’t change that there’s conflict. It may soften the blow of a loss, but it doesn’t change that someone or something is gone.

It may cloud the reality of what is, but in no way makes it different.

Oftentimes we feel the need to do something to make pain go away, but most often what we really need is to sit with it, learn from it, and then act on what we’ve learned.

It might be uncomfortable to go against what we usually do, but it’s the only way to create the possibility of feeling better than we usually feel.

Photo by Wonderlane

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Jenn E

    I returned home in America after a three week long stint in Thailand, part of the trip I participated in a Buddhist meditation retreat. Since then I’ve found it challenging to adjust back to life in America, particularly with my career that’s causing alot of suffering. I found this blog recently and it’s helped me so much already. Rather than numbing the pain by reaching for a cigarette or eating I will make a conscious effort to digest what is going on and assess the situation more. Thank you for doing what you do, your posts have eased the transition home. If we could all learn some eastern beliefs and practice them I think we’d be a happier world.

  • Yes, good points, Lori. 

    Years ago, commercials for cigarettes proliferated the only three networks. You couldn’t watch a prime time program without it getting interrupted with images of men or women (or cowboys) inhaling a Kent or Salem or Marlboro, then drifting into bliss, looking cool, in control and sophisticated. As teenagers, we all wanted to be cool and in charge.

    But as we grew up, those of us who followed the instructions of the tobacco companies eventually discoverd that nicotine played catch with our brains and hearts, snatched the ball and never gave it up. Once hooked, the only place to win was a rationalization that went something like this:

    “I know I shouldn’t smoke (or eat fatty foods, or drink as much as I do) but I enjoy it and without it, life isn’t the way I want it. So I’ll keep living this way until it kills me. But at least I’ll die happy, doing what I wanted to do.”

    This is a quote from a man I’ll call Ren. There was a flaw in Ren’s philosophy. Abusing your body doesn’t always kill you…right away. But it CAN take your life.

    Ren smoked, drank heavily and ordered sides of cholesterol with every meal. He knew he shouldn’t. He did it anyway, until a stroke followed by a three-way bypass stopped it all. Ren lost the use of his left arm, hand and leg. Today he can hardly walk and is in constant pain. Life for Ren…is Hell.

    Before his fall, Ren was arrogant, rude, and self-righteous. Now he’s a crumbled man swimming in depression, relying on others to cross a room. All I see in his eyes, is regret.

    I think of Ren every time I start to cross boundaries into unhealthy living. It’s so easy to do that. As you point out, instant gratification lures us into it’s control, even if it’s a potato chip or that third cup of coffee.

    Our destructive habits are not the panaceas of seeking pleasure. Our real habits are what causes our habits, like fear of the future, fear of abandonment, or fear of failure. Fear, fear fear… Dread, dread, dread… Pain, pain, pain…

    Yes Lori, you so right. We have to deal with the source of our insecurities before we can tear away our Band-Aids. And we have to do that NOW. Tomorrow is much closer than we think. I know. All my yesterdays have collapsed into what seems to be a few years.

    No doubt about it. We have to adjust our priorities every day. I think that’s what therapy’s about…and religion, and meditation, and life’s journey. Yours and mine.


  • Thank you for this, Lori! I’m mourning a very painful loss right now, and my instinct is to bury myself in work and other things so that I can avoid confronting it head-on. This was a wonderful reminder to step back and sit with it for a while so that I can start to heal.

  • I believe that we all live our lives under the guise of some sort of addiction.  It is a matter of choosing what that addiction is… and there are good choices.

    As a result I have done 9 Ironmans.  It stopped me from drinking alcohol and spinning out about my life, from obsessing about a sad divorce, and need to change my business location.  That was 14 years ago.  I still use exercise to keep me centered but in a more balanced way.

    Non the less, there are always things to work on.  My latest pill:  a couple of drinks either wine or a cocktail.  Not on the “you need to get help” level by any means… BUT it effects me, and I’d rather not feel that way.  So why do I excuse myself into it… especially during “the holidays”?  It’s toxic.  I’m reading things about how toxic it is.  My commitment to 2012; stop with the a couple of drinks excuse!

    Mahalo for the inspiration to change that “pill”.

  • Otterspace2001

    I’m a journaler from way back Lori, and although most of my writing was filled with angst and suffering I find more recently that journaling evolved into prayer for me. The first time i noticed this was when at the end of a session i wrote “amen” without thinking about it at all. This -start writing to find out what was going on with me and concluding in a prayer- was a very nice development. Previously, I had thought I was just bad and talking to God because  well, I felt stupid and never heard back. So I get that for me, writing is the way for me to connect with spirit and with divine guidance and support. 

    The reason I share this with you is that I have also discovered the God speaks to me serendipitously through the voices (and sometimes actions) of others quite often. When messages like your post show up for me in such timely fashion, it reinforces this belief.

    Years back in a support circle of men I shared how distant from Spirit I had always felt and that I felt very ready and needy for the connection. The elder of the group listened to my plaintive request,  held out his hands to me and said, “You see these hands Harvey. These are the hands of God.” It was at that moment I discovered that one of the “mysterious ways” God works is through each and every one of us. What great news!

    And it’s made it a heck of a lot easier (when I remember this) to get in touch with the support and guidance or serenity that I need in any current moment; i just have to open my eyes a little wider (or is that my heart?)

    So, thank you for posting Exacty what i needed to hear today to setlle me down a bit and help me to breathe a little easier. As they say, “It comes around and goes around. Ya mon!

  • What an important piece in today’s world.  We’re such a quick fix society.  It’s all about pill-popping; and the industries encourage it glamorously.  But it’s all for their pocket.  We need to realize there’s something far greater than these addictive devices that will eventually heal us.  But ‘eventually’ is the operative word and nobody wants to wait; we allwant instant gratification. 
    General doctors/internists now pull out their prescription pads for the anti-depressant of the day without even ‘prescribing therapy’ to go along with it.  “I’m feeling sad, I don’t know why”;  “here’s a pill to make you feel better”. 
    It even goes to parenting where parents are ‘helicopter’ parents doing all for their kids to protect them.  Our kids are being raised as entitled, coddled and lacking any sort of coping skills to deal with life’s challenges.  Not to sound like a downer, but it all seems to be getting worse. 
    I try to do my (little) part in giving parenting workshops on raising resilient and responsible children;in talking about the importance of letting kids ‘fail’ and make mistakes, in allowing them to feel badly and deal with these emotions.  Otherwise all we know to do is turn to the externals of addictive substances to soothe ourselves.        

  • Otterspace2001

    Oh. Ps. Those commercials amaze me!! After hearing all the possible injurious responses one can have to the pill, how could anyone take those risks in order to cure a problem like “Restless Leg Syndrome”? That one is my favorite because I can just see them in the lab discovering that the drug they just made that doesn’t do what they hoped it would, does indeed relax (or paralyze) leg muscles; so now let us create a disease out of nothing so we can sell this product. The week “Lumina” came out with their beautiful butterfly commercial, promising sleep and pleasant dreams, sales tripled overnight. Go figure-

  • I guess we all have our pill. I think running slowly became my pill, my meditation and my solitude all rolled into one! I’m increasingly interested in treating the cause rather than the symptom. a headache for example may be from too much stress, bad posture, dehydration etc. A few moments feeling for the cause often brings a drug free fix. and if that doesn’t work go for a run 😉

  • erica

    This is absolutely great. its funny how the simplest things (or what seems like the simplest things) we often have to relearn — looking at our suffering, learning, and acting — thank you for this amazing post.

    to add to this, i think its impt to remember that everything (this uncomfortable feeling you have) is impermanent and to seize the opportunity to learn from it and grow from it.

  • Sarah

    While I agree whole-heartedly that we should not look outside ourselves to food, drink, or chemicals to numb our unpleasant feelings, I hope no one reads this article and reaches the conclusion that all medications are bad.

    You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just face their pain and deal with it – you would tell them to lean on their crutches so the leg has time to heal.  I am bi-polar, and I feel the same way about the medication I currently take.  I have no intention of staying on it for life, but it has given me some of the safety and support I needed, like a crutch, so I could learn to manage my brain in a healthier manner.

    Likewise, you wouldn’t tell someone with diabetes to stop taking their insulin, and it would be reckless to suggest to someone with schizophrenia that they were hiding behind their pills.  Can you imagine how it would feel to be stigmatized because of a disease you have no control over, and then to be stigmatized again for trying to do something about it?

    I really liked the overall message of this article, I just want to be a voice of caution.

  • Rob

    I am glad I read this today.  I have been struggling with depression from a breakup of a 5 year relationship.  I have not been able to get over it after 3 months and my Dr prescribed me an anti depressant.  I have been trying to use positive thoughts and relaxation, but I still can’t seem to clear my mind.  I will wait to try the Rx and reflect on this more.

  • Sillymonkey

    I was thinking something similar – meditation, calm, and working out helps, but it doesn’t correct what is fundamentally disfunctional in my system.

    Sometimes you just want even a chance to be on level ground with other people, and I don’t understand why there is such a backlash against this in self-care communities.

  • Sarah, total agreement.  For many with mental illness especially, it may be just as important to control their disorder with a properly supervised medication regimen.  There’s already much stigma associated with mental illness, and I personally know people who might benefit from SSRI’s or other drugs, but who won’t even try them because they fear  the second stigma associated with “depending on meds.”

    That said, I think it’s important to not seek salvation in a bottle, and there is no doubt many people do.

  • Thanks so much for the reminder – discomfort won’t kill us.  In fact, if we become more aware of discomfort and different levels of pain, the more likely it is we will recognize something truly serious, and take steps to address it.

    Love this blog, gave it a shout-out on mine today.  However… did you *have* to bring up the bucket of chicken?  Guess what I haven’t had in a couple of years and am now craving?

  • Joylynnquinn

    Wow! Thanks for this post I am going through a tough time and suffering in pain at something personal in my life. I haven’t turn to food when I usally would but to exercise. And trying to find the answer why to my question. This post gave me an AHA moment and reconfirmed being truly honest with youself!

  • Solartatcutie

    As someone that suffers from depression and anxiety, I would say that I have mixed emotions on this article. I think that society has made some medications too easy for some to obtain and many are laughed about for taking care of many of us, some are truly needed. When taken correctly they allow us to function normally. Sometimes the medications can allow a calmness so that you can get through the situation rather than being in a state of chaos. Our bodies have several mechanisms that will alert you when you need to take care of yourself, for some of us the wiring is a little off, so a medication can repair or re connect so we can deal with things. Most that do take medications will tell you that they don’t want to take them forever however if it makes me relate better and feel better, well just as a diabetic or someone with a heart condition, I will continue to help my body in what it lacks. 

  • Hi Sarah,

    I appreciate the note! I didn’t intend to imply that all medications were bad. I was actually just using the pharmaceutical commercial as a jumping off point for a discussion on self-medication (with alcohol, drugs, food, etc) because each presents a number of dangerous side effects.

    Of course, we need traditional medicine to heal and treat medical conditions. I do, however, think the pharmaceutical industry pushes tons of unnecessary–and oftentimes dangerous drugs–for the sake of profit.


  • Hi Beverly,

    I agree with you there. Though I’ve personally seen both sides of this discussion. I was just a teenager when a psychiatrist put me on 7 different medications, which came with a whole host of dangerous side effects. Now more than a decade later, I function well without any medication. That’s not to say all people are like me. I know some people with mental illnesses who absolutely benefit from taking medication consistently. I think we, as a society, need to be careful, though, that we don’t push medications when there could be an alternative treatment plan–starting with addressing the root emotional cause.


  • Over the years, I have found that the most important thing for my well-being is prioritizing self-care above all else. It’s like “mental maintenance.” When I start to slip, I notice a big difference!

  • Great points Irv. It’s all too easy to justify destructive habits. I think we often assume we’re invincible–I know I used to. But we could all be like Ren someday if we don’t make it a priority to take care of ourselves.

  • Thanks Erica! Remembering impermanence always helps me. There’s something so comforting about realizing “This too shall pass!”

  • You’re most welcome Jenn. I’m so glad Tiny Buddha has helped you! How exciting that you went on a Buddhist meditation retreat in Thailand. I’ve always wanted to take one of those!

  • You’re most welcome. I’m sorry for your loss Danielle. Sending you lots of love!

  • Yes I’m with you on that one! I actually made the same decision about alcohol. I realized that I never feel physically good after drinking, and it’s just not something I need to do. I also realized I had all these positive associations with drinking (fun, social, relaxation, etc) when there are just as many negative ones. Here’s to a healthier 2012. =)

  • You’re most welcome! I actually find writing to be a spiritual process as well. I think of spirituality as anything that connects me with other people and gives me a sense that I am part of something bigger than myself. Growing through writing, and being part of a community of other people doing the same, accomplishes both of those things!

  • Yes its so true. Quick fixes sell. How wonderful that you teach parents to raise children who won’t feel the need to numb themselves. What we need is people feeling and healing, not numbing and hiding.

  • I understand your mixed emotions. It’s unfortunate that mental illness carries a stigma. When depression is chemical, the patient can’t choose not to have it any more than a diabetic could choose to be healthy. I think what’s tough is that over the last few decades, the psychiatry industry has over-diagnosed instead of considering other factors that might contribute to depression and anxiety. So while some people genuinely need medications to address chemical issues in their brains, others need different types of help that they often don’t get when they assume a pill is the complete answer.

    When I was in high school and college, I was prescribed more than 7 pills at once–antidepressants, mood stabilizers, tranquilizers, and the like. I was in crisis and in therapy, and yet I didn’t really address the root causes. Once I started to do that, I needed medication less–and I don’t take any now. I’m not saying this would be true for everyone, but I suspect there are other people out there who are a lot like former me.

  • You’re most welcome. I’m glad this helped!

  • Yes I thought the same thing the last time I had a headache. Instead of just reaching for an Advil, I started thinking about the fact that I’d been drinking a lot of caffeinated beverages and not a lot of water. Sure enough, chugging some water helped a lot!

  • Hi Rob,

    I hope I didn’t discourage you from doing something that may be helpful to you! Sometimes medication can give someone the push they need to get out of a dark time. But if you’ve been dealing with a depression that’s connected to your break up, it’s entirely possible you need to work through your emotions a little more directly. I think this can be even harder for men, because as women, we’re more accustomed to talking about our feelings. (Not to stereotype–I know some men who talk about their emotions all the time!)


  • Linda Lane

    All medications are bad. HA Ha ha.

    So looks like I’d better find more images of the Buddhas if I am going to keep up with your lovely writing on Buddhist topics.

    Glad you enjoy the Buddha images – I’ve posted more than a few just for your use.

    Best wishes for a solvent water dragon New Year!

  • I love your Buddha images! I have somewhat stalked your Flickr page. Thank you for sharing these beautiful photos. =)

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