The girl who felt no pain

Imagine not being able to feel pain. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Gabby Gingras is a girl who feels no pain. When she was one day old, and a nurse drew some blood from her, she didn’t even move. Most babies would howl.

Gabby is born with a very very rare nerve disorder that prevents pain sensations from reaching her brain.

When Gabby was teething, she chewed her fingers so hard that it drew blood. But she didn’t even notice. Once, she chewed on her tongue as if it was bubble gum. She had to spend 10 days in the hospital because her tongue was so swollen she couldn’t eat or drink anything. 

As a baby, Gabby just did not stop scratching and poking her eyes. It got so bad that the doctors temporarily sewed her eyelids off. Today, because of that self inflicted harm, Gabby is legally blind.

Because Gabby did not feel any pain, she did not stop doing things that were harmful for her!

Gabby teaches us that pain is essential. Pain is a helpful teacher. Without pain, we don’t learn to avoid harm. We act recklessly without caution. With pain, we correct our paths.

“Pain is miserable. Life without pain is a disaster.” – Morgan Housel

Show me a spoilt child and I’ll show you a parent who did everything they could to hide them from pain and suffering of any kind. And shaded them from facing the consequences of their actions. 

Show me a clueless leader and I’ll show you his colleagues who hid bad news from him.

We’ve become a society that’s become addicted to painkillers. We rather hide the pain than fix the cause.

Whether it’s physical, or emotional, or financial pain. We make excuses and look for bailouts. And things go from bad to worse.

Growth happens when you learn from the pain and fix the underlying cause. Joy comes from overcoming painful challenges. Grittiness comes from persevering against pain.

But pain is miserable and well… painful. No one likes it. 

As the boxing legend Muhammal Ali said: “It’s not the mountains ahead that wear you out. It’s the little pebble in your shoe.“

Pain leeches your energy. And so, to retain your energy, you have to distinguish pain from suffering.

How can you suffer less without hiding the pain?

Victor Frankl – a neurologist from Austria – was put in a Nazi concentration camp during World War 2. Everything was taken away from him. His mother, father, brother, and pregnant wife all were killed in the camps. 

A lot of people around Frankl in the camps lost all hope and died. But just as the lotus blooms in the muddy waters, Frankl found his peace in the concentration camps.

After Frankl was released from the concentration camps, he wrote a book in 9 days. “Man’s search for meaning” has sold over 10 million copies since then. The American Library of Congress deemed this book to be one of ten most influential books ever written.

Frankl emphasizes that pain is inevitable. But suffering is optional. Between the pain and the response, there is space. In that space is our power to choose. In this choice lies our growth and freedom. We can choose to not suffer.

The Nazi’s took everything away from Frankl. Everything except his ability to choose how to respond.

Mind tools: Choosing to suffer less

Later on in life, Frankl changed his career from neurology to psychiatry. And created the field of logotherapy. Healing through meaning. Frankl believed that observing the symptoms and paying attention to it amplified them. This amplification in the mind caused more suffering than was necessary. And so, he provided a couple of tools to reduce this amplification.

1. Paradoxical intention: 

Humorously and intentionally exaggerate the symptoms, and they’ll reduce. 

For example, if a person had a fear of public speaking, and would shake with jitters, Frankl would advise them to imagine they have to give a speech, and to purposefully exaggerate their shakiness. This trick allows people to distance themselves from the symptoms. Which reduces the suffering. 

2. De-reflection: 

Draw your attention away from the symptoms and the suffering reduces. Frankl taught his patients how to distract themselves and reflect on other unrelated issues to reduce their suffering.

Have you ever gone to a movie and become so absorbed in it that you forget about everything around you? Eleanor Jameson and her colleagues conducted an experiment on 60 participants that showed that playing video games is an excellent method to reduce chronic pain. 

Your attention is limited. If you don’t pay attention to the pain, the suffering automatically reduces.

And while Frankl didn’t teach it, that’s the basis of hypnotherapy too – our next tool on the list. 

3. Using hypnosis to manage pain:

In 2000, psychologist Steven Lynn and his colleagues performed a meta analysis of 18 published studies on hypnosis and pain management. And found that in 75% of cases, pain can be effectively managed with hypnotherapy. Without any pain medication.

Hypnosis is very little understood. And research is still being done on how it really works. But what we do know is that hypnosis is nothing but a state of focused attention. As psychotherapist Linda Walter puts it: hypnosis is like looking through a microscope. You see things with a great deal of detail, but you lose all context. And hence, you’re consciously less aware of the painful emotion.

Using relaxation techniques and self hypnosis can go a long way in reducing suffering. 

Which brings us to our final tool on how to change our perception to reduce suffering.

4. The ending changes your perception of pain:

Our favorite Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman performed an experiment once. He gathered a group of participants and asked them to put their hands in a bucket of cold water twice. Once for each hand. During the entire process, the participants were given a dial they could rotate to indicate how much pain they were experiencing.

The first time, their hand was put in a bucket of cold water for 60 seconds. The water was 14 degrees celsius. 

The second time, their other hand was put in a bucket of cold water for 90 seconds. For the first 60 seconds, the water was at 14 degrees celsius. But after that, for the next 30 seconds, it rose gradually to 15 degrees celsius.

Both the trials were equally painful for the first 60 seconds – as observed by the dial the participants rotated. But the participants dialed the pain and discomfort level down for the next 30 seconds of the second trial.

And when they were asked which of the two trials they would like to repeat again, 70% of the participants opted for the 90 second trial – even though it lasts 30 seconds longer. When asked for their opinion, they said that the second trial felt less painful. Some even claimed that it felt shorter.

People’s memory and perception of the entire event is changed by how it ends! People will sit through more pain, if the ending is not as painful as the beginning. 

Change your ending and you can cope well. Be gritty. And work on fixing the underlying cause of the symptoms. So that the ending improves.

Action Summary:

  • Pain is miserable. But life without pain is a disaster. Don’t hide away from the pain. Instead learn from it and deal with its underlying cause.
  • Use your mindset to decouple pain from suffering. You have the power to choose how much you suffer.