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when fear hurts more than suffering itself

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A few weeks ago a friend reported that a routine blood test had come back and that his doctor had phoned to say that further tests were needed. My friend relayed all this with tears and agitation, expressing shock and fear at the many negative implications he could think of. We met again a week later and he reported that things were looking up: he was now waiting for some sort of scanning procedure, his fear no longer acute, his attitude almost neutral.

This shift over time reminded me once more of the impermanence of everything. Nothing stays the same, everything changes. It’s become a cliché yet my friend’s experience reminded me of its fundamental truth. Upon receiving the phone call, his mind imagined the worst possible scenario, resulting in fear and suffering. When he used additional information to revise his expectations, his mind calmed down and suffering diminished.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is internationally known for his work using mindfulness meditation to help medical patients with anxiety and stress. He writes: 

“Ordinarily we do not make a distinction between pain and suffering, but there are very important differences between them. Pain is a natural part of the experience of life. Suffering is one of the many possible responses to pain. Suffering can come out of either physical or emotional pain. It involves our thoughts and emotions and how they frame the meaning of our experiences.

“Suffering, too, is perfectly natural. … But it is important to remember that suffering is only one response of the experience of pain. Even a small pain can produce great suffering in us if we fear that we have a tumor or some other frightening condition. … It is not always the pain per se but the way we see it and react to it that determine the degree of suffering we experience. And it is the suffering we fear most, not the pain” (my emphasis).

source: Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of our body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Dell, p.285.

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