A dear friend of mine lost her twin brother recently in a tragic accident. At the funeral, they told a story about when the two of them were young and got a spanking, they would vigorously scratch their legs to make the pain go away. They would “scratch it off” they said. This got me thinking about the way we deal with pain or, often, the way we don’t.
Research into why we scratch has shown there is a lot going on between our skin and our brain. When we scratch, even without an itch, it activates areas of the brain associated with memory and pleasure. At the same time, scratching suppresses areas of the brain associated with the sensation of pain and emotions.
When you stub your toe or bang your head into something, you might find yourself rubbing the location. Pain is carried by small nerves, while larger nerves pick up on pressure, touch, and position of the limb. If you think of the spinal cord as a series of little gates, the larger nerves crowd those points and limit the signals sent by the smaller nerves. The larger nerves also cause the body to release endorphins which are the hormones that give you a positive feeling after exercise or eating chocolate. (I prefer chocolate, by the way.)
Rubbing your skin doesn’t undo the damage of a stubbed toe, and scratching doesn’t resolve the underlying cause of itchy skin. These behaviors simply close off pain information to the brain and make you feel better. If the cause of the itch isn’t dealt with, we may very well scratch ourselves until we bleed.
Sometimes, we come up with ways to scratch or rub in response to emotional pain too. Accomplishment, acquisition, and a myriad of compulsive behaviors helped cover my emotional pain. For some people, it is alcohol and drugs. For others, it is denial and compartmentalizing. Some put their pain on others. Just like a physical itch, our temporary solutions to mental and emotional pain can be effective for a while but eventually will leave us bloody or dead.
The ultimate solution to a physical itch is to treat the condition, not just numb the symptom. The same is true for our mental and emotional pain. We must find the cause and resolve it if we want to be free from the need to scratch. And just like our physical bodies often need a doctor to help us understand what we need, our emotional being often needs someone who is educated and capable of diagnosing the problem and helping us work out the solution.
I know it is hard to admit when we are not okay emotionally or mentally. There is a stigma in our society with having any emotional or mental issues. That makes me sad, because mental and emotional illness and pain are just as real as physical illness and pain and just as critical to get cared for. We need a culture where it is as common to get mental or emotional care as it is to see a medical doctor or a dentist.
One of the most effective ways to eliminate the stigma is for more people to be open and transparent about their struggles with mental and emotional health. I’m not talking about sharing every detail about your inner being with everyone any more than I would suggest you tell us every detail of your last doctor visit. I am suggesting that when we acknowledge that we sometimes need help and are not always okay, it gives other people permission to admit they are not okay too.
It is not a good plan for us to “scratch off” our mental and emotional pain. It is a great idea for us to scratch off the stigma associated with needing help and asking for it. The pain of having mental or emotional illness is more than enough. We don’t need to add embarrassment or shame, so let’s scratch off that pain. Helping each other get real help instead of just blocking the pain can make a difference, and it is The Kimray Way.