Stress Testing the Mind

Extreme Experience & the Power of Noticing

They say that pain is a great motivator, but if you listen carefully, it is also a phenomenal teacher.

I’ve experienced some unusual sensations in my life.  Some of them exceedingly painful. The learning process and early years of becoming a sword swallower certainly forced some uncomfortable moments, both physically and mentally.

Nothing in my experience, however, has come close to the pain of enduring deep burns on my body.  I can tell you first hand that while third degree burns themselves don’t often “hurt,” the auxiliary burns surrounding them scream relentlessly and without mercy as the damaged nerves flood the brain with ceaseless pain signals.

I remember sitting in the emergency room during treatment, using every last bit of my willpower in a vain attempt to control the pain.  The effort demanded all my resources, all my energy, all my focus. And never have my efforts been so mocked, beat down by the specter of pain in mere moments to leave me in what seemed to be inescapable distress.

Pain created an environment – a laboratory really – in which I was forced to experiment with new techniques.  The pain and accompanying thoughts were impossible to control – be it through distraction, medication, or the simple attempt to block it out –  so in desperation (and harkening back to some of my lessons from childhood), I decided to abandon any attempt to control and instead simply approach the sensations with interest.  Almost a scientific curiosity.

Pain created an environment – a laboratory really – in which I was forced to experiment with new techniques.


Value Judgements, Unhelpful Thoughts and a New Way Forward

My first priority was to abandon value judgements.  I decided to relinquish my deeply instilled belief that the pain was “bad.”  Rather, it simply was. Neither good nor bad. Intense perhaps, but with no value judgement.

Next, I decided that ruminating on how much I “didn’t want to feel like this” was useless.  It was a distraction and an attempt to get away from that which was literally inescapable. There was nowhere to go to escape the sensation of my nerves firing on all cylinders.  No body position I could adopt to lessen the pain (I tried!). At the end of the day, you can’t outrun your brain. The thought “I don’t want this” wasn’t at all helpful, and instead only made me feel worse.  So of that thought too I let go.

Freed from the need to avoid, I instead decided to describe the pain – its shape, the changes in intensity, where I was feeling it, it’s “quality” (and let me tell you, it was quality pain!).

Unshackled from the demands of controlling the thoughts and sensations, a curious thing happened.  The pain began to change.

Unshackled from the demands of controlling the thoughts and sensations, a curious thing happened. The pain began to change 

It still hurt.  But in a way, the intensity of the situation shifted from one of pain plus struggle, strife, desire, panic and torment, to one simply of, well…  just pain. By observing the pain and giving up my need to direct or minimize the response, I realized just how much additive pain my initial struggle had created.  The pain of the burn was amplified by my attempt to control my thinking.

Being outmatched, I was forced to realize the futility of attempting to control my thoughts.  I let them roll along, come and go as they saw fit, but did not latch on to them.  My focus was instead placed upon directing my awareness, which I chose to deploy as curiosity.

 My focus was instead placed upon directing my awareness, which I chose to deploy as curiosity.

I found a certain freedom in that tactic, and the more I directed that awareness toward noticing, the more I became the beneficiary of a secondary effect.  The actual pain began to diminish as well.  This was not the original intent, and certainly doesn’t always occur, but it is often a delightful side-effect.


Extreme Experience, Stress Tests & the Daily Struggle

Extreme experiences often provide immediate and unmistakable feedback, pointing out the flaws in our habitual mental strategies and coping mechanisms.  It’s sort of like stress testing a new material. Under normal loads it may not show its weakness, but get it toward the edge of its capacity and it will demonstrate exactly where it has breaking points.

In the case of my pain experience, my willpower being exhausted and at the edge of its capacity, it became evident that the weak point was the very attempt to control my thoughts and feelings.  

Attempting to control one’s thinking – via a myriad of methods – is one of the most pernicious yet common tactics we employ when faced with challenging situations.  In the example above the challenging situation was extreme, but most of our challenges manifest in our normal, less extreme daily experience.  Yet rarely are we forced so close to the edge that we realize the fundamental unworkability of our approach.  We simply don’t see the weak points, for lack of extreme stress.  As a result, we believe that our “techniques” must be working, blind to the fact that we find ourselves in the same situation, facing the same challenges, time and time again.  Our patterns repeat because our solutions are only short-term, not workable for the long-term.

Common control techniques include vain attempts to “block out” bad thoughts, pretending that challenging thoughts don’t exist, trying to “stop” the replay of old stories and scripts that run through our mind, distracting oneself from the thoughts, entirely avoiding situations that trigger the challenging thoughts (and accepting the concomitant decrease in quality of life as your actions become directed by your avoidance) and attempts to overwrite them through futile positive affirmations.    

Addressing this deeply entrenched need to control often becomes a point of focus at the beginning of my work with a new client.  Even after working with a client for months, the “control agenda” can rear its ugly head and we simply can’t move on until we address it.  It’s an insidious and tenacious foe that has a tendency to reappear in our most vulnerable moments.   

In my own personal example above, the subject and accelerant was pain, but it takes many forms.  Just today I had a coaching conversation that circled around the need for emotional control in a business context.  Last week I had a similar conversation about emotional control during a career shift and its impact on self-identity.  But be it business, career or relationships; be it sports or academic performance; be it social interactions or the “pure” emotions of fear, anxiety, depression, et. al. – they are all symptoms.  How the agenda manifests in your particular case is a symptom of the agenda itself:  your relationship to control and self-regulation.


Are You Amplifying?

How much of our daily pain and struggle is actually related to the amplified struggle that arises from attempting to control our thinking?  How would your experience change if you decided to stop trying to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings, while simultaneously giving up the idea that they are “good” or “bad?”  Where in your life are you attempting to “stop” thoughts and feelings from occurring, and where are you trying desperately to avoid them altogether? And is there a better way?

While there are many tactics that can and should be deployed in the face of these struggles, they all begin with noticing.  The next time you find yourself struggling with challenging thoughts or feelings, I encourage you, as I did during my ER experience, to begin simply with noticing the struggle.  Recognize that in struggling, you may in fact be amplifying the pain, and instead choose to deploy your awareness in the form of curiosity. Notice, watch and describe. You may just witness your pain and struggle transform.


Want to share your own story of working with challenging thoughts?  Have questions?  Shoot me a message at


Roderick Russell is a professional speaker, fear & anxiety coach, sword swallower and rock climbing guide.  Find out more about Roderick on LinkedIn

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