How Mindfully Sitting with Discomfort is the Ultimate Act of Self-Care

By Laura Chackes, Psy.D.

It’s common for new year’s resolutions to focus on self-care, like eating healthier, exercising more, getting more sleep, and doing things we enjoy. These are all very healthy ways of taking care of ourselves, and are among my new year’s resolutions.

But there is also another type of self-care that is often overlooked, probably because it doesn’t feel good in the moment, and is very hard to do. This other type of self-care involves allowing ourselves to actually feel all of our feelings, even the uncomfortable ones.

Of course, we want to be mindful of pleasant emotions like joy, excitement, love, and delight. It would benefit us all to slow down and smell the roses, both literally and figuratively.

We often overlook those small moments when we are happy and enjoying life. We may not have paid much attention to the taste of that first sip of coffee this morning or the feeling of the hot water hitting our skin in the shower. Stopping to notice any moment in our lives using one or more of our five senses is an excellent informal mindfulness practice, which leads to many benefits including increased focus, calm, and overall mental and physical health.

When I talk about sitting with discomfort, I am talking about another mindfulness exercise that can be practiced informally (by paying attention to what you are doing in the present moment) or formally (by sitting down to meditate).

Mindfulness is defined most simply as an exercise for the brain that involves paying attention to the present moment without judgement. As you probably know, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of studies that have found regular mindfulness practice to significantly improve one’s physical and mental health.

One of the major benefits of mindfulness comes from allowing ourselves to pay attention to the uncomfortable (and even painful) situations, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that we experience.

To help illustrate how this works and how you can apply it in your own life, I will walk you through an experience I just had with this.

This afternoon while I was making lunch, I felt a massive headache coming on. I took some sinus and pain medicine and tried to just keep focused on making lunch. However, I kept getting distracted by the pain and pressure in my head. I eventually couldn’t keep pushing through the pain and had to go sit down.

I decided to try a meditation, as I know that they often help me to relax, which consequently reduces some of the discomfort I feel throughout my body.

I chose a 10-minute guided meditation called “Sitting with Discomfort” by A.M. Wilkinson from the Insight Timer app. I closed my eyes and got into a comfortable position and let her words guide me.

At first, all I could notice was the throbbing pain in my forehead. She asked me to notice other parts of my body, but my attention kept shifting back to my head. Then the meditation led me to focus on something uncomfortable in my life, and then directly on the area in my body where I felt my discomfort. “Oh good,” I thought. “I’m already paying attention to my headache, so I’ve got this one.”

As she led me to observe and describe exactly what the discomfort felt like, I imagined a big black blob of sludge covering my nose, eyes, and forehead. She asked me to rate the level of discomfort I was experiencing on a scale of 1-10, 1 being very minimal discomfort and 10 being the most uncomfortable I could imagine. I rated it a 6 because I was in a lot of physical pain.

Then she guided me to imagine that I was in an airplane control tower, with big glass windows covering the walls. She instructed me to imagine the uncomfortable situation, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that I had been noticing to be outside of the control tower. So, I could see them all, but there were glass walls separating me from them.

Then she had me imagine that the control tower was decorated just for me, using whatever furniture, wallcoverings, lights, and ambiance I most desired. I imagined light purple walls with soft white curtains covering the windows. I imagined soft, fluffy, white couches with the most comfortable pillows. I imagined wood floors with gray rugs that were so soft that they felt amazing on my bare feet. I imagined the smell of lavender essential oils being diffused throughout the room, and I heard soft singing bowls creating a calming melody in the background. By noticing the room with each of my senses, I really felt like I was in this room that I created in my mind.

The meditation then guided me to look outside of the control tower, and notice those uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations again. She then asked again what my current level of discomfort was on a scale of 1-10. I took a moment to check back in with my headache, and surprisingly my pain had gone down to about a 3. I still felt a dull ache, but it was much less intense. Even as I’m writing this, about 30-40 minutes after doing the meditation, my discomfort level is still around a 3.

So, how did this happen? How did my head pain go from a 6 to a 3 just by doing a meditation?

I believe that the answer lies in this equation: 

Pain X Resistance = Suffering

While I was making lunch I did not want to stop and acknowledge my pain. I kept pushing it down so that I could accomplish a task. However, this resistance to the pain ended up resulting in more suffering. Using that same scale of discomfort, I was feeling pain at the level of a 6. My resistance to that pain while I was making lunch was about a 9. I was not allowing myself to feel the pain, but instead was trying to ignore it, which is a way to try to avoid feeling the pain.

Using the equation above (6 X 9 = 54), my level of overall suffering was 54 out of 100. So not the worst suffering I could experience, but still a moderate level of suffering.

With most physical and emotional pain, we cannot do anything to immediately make the pain go away; but we can do something to reduce our resistance to the pain. The meditation guided me through one way to do this. By taking some time to slow down and let myself feel the pain, and then by creating a comforting place to experience it, I changed my relationship to the pain. Instead of pushing it away, I embraced it with curiosity and acceptance. This reduction of my resistance from a 9 to a 1, significantly reduced my overall level of suffering from a 54 to a 6 (6 X 1 =6).

You don’t have to do a meditation to practice this approach, but often starting out practicing with one can be helpful. The key steps in sitting with discomfort can be done formally or informally, and are outlined below:

  1. Pause to take a quick inventory of what is going on around you and within you. What am I doing right now? Who am I with? What thoughts are going through my head? What emotions are present? What do I feel in my body?
  2. Rate your level of discomfort on a scale of 1-10.
  3. Take a few minutes to tune into where you feel this discomfort in your body. Even if there aren’t any obvious physical sensations that are bothering you, scan through your body to notice if there are any areas of tension, tightness, heaviness, or pain.
  4. Become curious about this discomfort in your body. How would you describe this discomfort to a doctor? Where exactly do you feel it? Is the discomfort constant or does it get more intense at times? Do you associate any colors, shapes, sounds, or textures to this discomfort?
  5. Welcome in the discomfort with an attitude of openness and acceptance by just allowing the sensations to be as they are without trying to change them in any way. You may want to imagine a comfortable space to sit with this discomfort as I did in the meditation, or you may want to just sit and breath along with the discomfort. The most important part of this step is that you do not try to make the discomfort change or go away.
  6. Re-rate your level of discomfort after you have reduced your resistance to it. Notice if the number decreased. Often it does; however, not always. Sometimes those sensations are very stubborn. In this case, just knowing that you can sit with the discomfort and that you do not have to make it go away is also a valuable lesson.

So, as you are setting your resolutions this year, remember that truly caring for yourself involves both doing things that you enjoy, AND taking time to sit with those things that are not very enjoyable. This does not mean that you need to push yourself to do things that you don’t like to do or that are unhealthy for you. But rather that you allow yourself to have and experience all of your emotions. When we reduce our resistance to the unpleasant emotions by allowing them to be as they are, we actually reduce the amount of suffering that they cause. 

If you are interested in learning and practicing more mindfulness skills with the support and accountability of a small online class, consider taking one of our upcoming mindfulness courses.