Pain Only Hurts

Psychological pain can be terrible and unbearable. But there’s a secret about pain that you should know about.

The title for this article comes from ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek. In case you aren’t familiar with ultramarathon running, it is a niche sport comprised of running races that are at lengths longer than the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Some of these ultramarathon races have developed cult-like followings, and entail superhuman tests of mental and physical strength.

Take, for example, the “Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.” The race goes through 4 countries, covers 106 miles around the Alps, has a total elevation gain of over 32,000 ft, and has a 46-hour cutoff, which does not include any time spent sleeping. Or there is the “Badwater 135.” This is considered by many to be the most difficult race in the world because it covers 135 miles, over 14,000 ft of elevation gain, and requires runners to do all of this in DEATH VALLEY in JULY.

Despite battling heat well over 100 degrees, Jurek won the “Badwater 135” two years in a row. And many ultramarathoners consider Jurek to be one of the all-time best ultramarathon runners.

During his years of training and winning races, Jurek has become acquainted with the inescapable physical and emotional pain associated with ultramarathon running. And it was out of these painful activities that he adopted the mantra that “Pain only hurts.”

Of course, pain, whether physical or emotional, is something that should be taken seriously. And some types of pain can foretell serious problems (for example, chest pain could signal an impending heart attack). But Jurek’s mindset reminds us that it isn’t the pain itself that’s the problem, but whatever is causing the pain.

Pain itself can’t actually harm us. Pain is certainly uncomfortable, and some types of pain can be nearly unbearable. But pain doesn’t make you sick or injured, and is not life-threatening. In short, pain only hurts.

If it seems like this article is being pedantic, it’s for good reason because one can’t overstate just how much of our lives revolve around how we deal with pain. Pick anything you do in life—from brushing your teeth, to buying clothes, to eating—and you can see that a major motivating factor in why you do the things you do is because you are trying to minimize pain (and, by extension, maximize pleasure).

Even things that on the surface seem painful are done in order to prevent a future event that’s seen as more painful. Take doing your taxes. No one wants to wade through their finances and attempt to understand how much they get back from, or owe to, the government. But we do it because of the fear of a larger pain for not doing taxes.

Our present-day society only feeds into this mindset of minimizing pain at all costs. From pain relievers, to get-rich-quick schemes, to Instagram posts of beautiful people in the Bahamas—our society tells us that unless we are having fun and are happy, we are doing it wrong.

But is pain really as bad as we make it out to be? Why do we vilify pain as much as we do?

Many people come to therapy because they are looking to get rid of some painful experience. They have created makeshift solutions for managing this pain, and are looking for therapy to get rid of it once and for all.

Depression is unquestionably painful. The sadness, feelings of worthlessness, lack of motivation—all of it makes depression one of the most difficult experiences people can have. But depression lies to you about its pain. Depression says that you can’t survive, can’t live through, the darkness it descends upon you. Depression tries to convince people that the pain it brings is too much.

But all of that is false.

The pain associated with depression is very, very difficult to bear, but at the end of the day, it’s only just pain. Depression can’t kill you. Depression can’t ruin your life. Depression can’t sabotage your future. There are no teeth, no dangers, looming behind the pain of depression. It’s just pain.

And this is the key to depression: coming to the realization that while the pain of depression can be very excruciating, it cannot do anything more than hurt. In other words, the pain of depression only hurts.

This article is by no means attempting to downplay or minimize just how difficult it can be to have depression, or any other mental health disorder. No one but the person living with depression can really know just how dark, discouraging, and debilitating it is for them. But it is important to try to see the nature of depression and its pain.

It’s important to see that the most intense, terrible, severe depression can’t harm you. When you imagine experiencing the worst possible feelings in the world—the ones that scream that you won’t survive them—it’s important to remember that these feelings can’t actually hurt you. No matter how scary, you will survive the worst psychological pain you can imagine.

The secret to mental health, to success in life, to running an ultramarathon in 100 degree heat is remembering that pain can be very, very painful. It can be excruciating and can make you question your survival of it. But you don’t have to run from pain because pain can’t actually harm you. Because…

Pain only hurts.