Last night around 3 am, I woke up due to pain in my upper chest. The pain was a weight pressing down on me. I didn’t know what was causing it, so there was also a little panic. I was sweating and my heart started beating faster. I thought about trying to just go back to sleep but realized the pain was too strong and my worry too present. I got out of bed, put on warmer clothing, grabbed a book, and went downstairs to sit in the recliner in the living room.
But I didn’t feel like turning on the light. I was too tired. So I just focused on breathing into my chest. I felt my body expand as I inhaled, and relax, settle down, as I exhaled. I focused on the sensations and let go of the thoughts.
And when I breathed in, the expansion of the chest decreased the pain. The pain was no longer one solid block. And I noticed it was not as continuous as I first thought it was; there were gaps. Sometimes, my hand would hurt instead. Or I could feel my back pressing comfortably against the chair, or my stomach expand and contract. My breathing got slower and calmer.
I went deeper into the pain and remembered similar ones from the past. I realized I could feel a restriction in my esophagus. It was not a heart attack causing the pain but probably acid reflux.
And then I fell asleep. But the sleep was unusual, and in spurts. I would wake up mentally, check in on myself, while my body was largely frozen and asleep. I couldn’t move my arms or legs. At first, I felt very vulnerable and scared, but then realized this inability to move was normal. Normal sleep is called paradoxical because you are unable to move your larger muscles, yet your mind, especially while dreaming, can be very active.
What was not normal was that I was mentally awake while being asleep. I could see one of our cats sleeping under the nightlight in front of me. Another one jumped off the couch and went to eat from his bowl. I could hear him but couldn’t move my head to see him. This state is called lucid dreaming. In some cultures and traditions, it is taught as part of meditation or healing. I entered this state rarely⎼ usually to change or escape from a dream I didn’t like. I decided I could wake up if I needed to do so.
And then I relaxed and fell asleep again, only to awaken a little later. And then I fell asleep for about three hours.
It might seem counter-intuitive to mentally go toward a pain instead of trying to immediately cut off all feeling. Certainly, pain can set the mind to screaming, so this is sometimes impossible to do. But to actually go toward the pain can signal to yourself you can relax, you can face the situation, and this can often decrease it and stop the mind from imagining threats that aren’t there.
Calming your mind can also allow you to feel and think clearly enough to gather the information the pain is sending you. You can then close your eyes and imagine taking a certain medication and discern if the feel of that pill would be helpful, or if drinking a certain tea or walking around or eating would increase or decrease it. Or whether you should call an ambulance or ask your partner or roommate to wake up and drive you to the emergency room. You could feel out different courses of action with more clarity.
However, the time to practice how to be calm in emergencies is now, when you are not experiencing one. Practicing closing your eyes partly or fully and taking 3 slower, deeper breaths when you notice you are angry or feel threatened is a good way to start. Or practicing mindfulness each day.
Of course, sometimes you immediately need that pill or ambulance. But how you respond to pain can either increase or decrease it. Simply allowing yourself to be aware and to be calm can not only reduce the pain, but clear the mind so you know better how to act.