The intelligence of discomfort

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. It's a common saying, especially in the fitness world of pain and gain. It is one I am quite familiar with, being a fitness coach for 15 years and an athlete my whole life. Seeing and personally experiencing how leaning into the edge of discomfort can elicit favorable adaptations with the body and mind has been a great life lesson. Of course, pain and gain are completely relative and not all pain is favorable or necessary, especially if longevity is the goal. One needs to clearly set out their own personal goals and have a professional and purpose-driven game-plan to navigate intelligently. The point is, don't seek out pain, but don't avoid it.

In the "real world" outside the gym, the more uncontrolled arena, where it feels like we have less control over what discomforts we experience and how far into our edge we go, it can be helpful to learn to actively listen to our innate intelligence, especially with our emotions, which tend to be affected the most. In the physical world we can feel our discomfort and see our gains, but we don't always identify as well with pain and gain of our emotional body. These need to be exercised in a way that creates flow and an inner environment for positive growth, similar to the way physical body responds to exercise.

Discomfort has elements of the unknown. We instinctively avoid that which we cannot see or know. Obviously, there is some intelligence in avoiding pain. Not as obvious is that there is the same intelligence in facing the pain, fear and discomfort. Accepting the agitation and stress that discomfort causes, especially at critical times that call for our transformation and change to occur, can be an intelligent response. If the caterpillar did not listen for the call, it would never blossom into the butterfly and fulfill its purpose. 

Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist, explains dopamine, the feel-good hormone, as having the key role of being released when we achieve a milestone or think we have accomplished something. This allows neural-plasticity – brain wiring and remapping – to occur, making it easier to get comfortable being uncomfortable again and again. What we must see is our obsession with only feeling good, and thinking that if we feel bad, there is something wrong. The science would say otherwise. Dopamine is not released if there is no challenge to overcome. It is nature's way of coaching us from within. 

Discomfort is strong, especially when we are in the middle of the storm. Mentally, we need to have some ability to identify ourselves more than just through our physical and emotional states. If we can objectively observe our discomforts from a larger perspective, we may be able to move through the weight of physical and emotional pain that holds us down. Everything moves. Like a wheel life is cyclical. There is a stage of learning, a stage of maturity and a stage of mastery. Then it repeats itself. It may not always be so perfectly aligned – maybe we lose a parent and are forced to grow up more quickly than intended. Although emotionally there is a heavy weight upon us, we can be assured that this too shall pass. From a larger perspective, an enormous amount of transformation is possible from this predicament. 

Spiritually we can make a sacred turn, using the physical and emotional states to feel the discomfort in combination with mental intelligence and spiritual wisdom, to pull out something great from inside of us. Many times, we turn away from the gifts inside of us because the pain feels too great. Deep down we are afraid of who we are. We may be afraid that by transforming we no longer fit in the same way that we have comfortably known for so long. Or we fear that by changing we will somehow lose ourselves and those around us. But playing it safe and fooling ourselves out of feeling the transformation when it calls for us wounds us. Not only ourselves, but it wounds the world and keeps the answers hidden away.

Our true essence is always being called out to answer the call. When we are in alignment from the inside out, it happens with ease. But when we fight it and resist it, it causes pain. Those places we are defensive and resistant are a great teaching about the areas waiting to awaken. If discomfort is part of the journey, and if it summons our greatness, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable will allow us to fully experience this wonderful life. 

Tim Hahn of Springfield runs CrossFit Instinct with his wife, Molly. He is a father, yoga teacher and life coach.