The two arrows of suffering

We all know that pain in our lives is inevitable, such as physical pain due to illnesses, or psychological pain in grief towards our losses.  No one will deny having the experience of suffering from either physical or psychological pain.  Why do some people seem so calm or accepting when experiencing the inevitable pain in life, and other become so disturbed in the face of pain? 

The analogy of “The Two Arrows of Suffering” can explain the difference of reactivity to pain for different people.  In this analogy, the first arrow is the inevitable pain in our lives.  For instance, we may have previous experience of being rejected socially, such as an old friend ignoring our messages for a prolonged period of time.  When being rejected, our brains react similarly as we suffer from physical pain.  The second arrow is our reaction to this inevitable pain.  If we react to the inevitable pain with non-acceptance, we may want to reduce or transform the pain.  For example, we may try harder to connect with this old friend and hope that we can prove that he or she is not rejecting us.  We may also react to this inevitable pain with anxiety and worry.  We may ruminate about all the possible reasons for this old friend ignoring our messages, such as the possibility of us having offended him or her in the past or someone in our network speaking ill of us in front of this old friend.  In fact, this second arrow may generate more second arrows as we loop into the vicious cycle of non-acceptance of our pain and wanting to eliminate or transform our pain.  In the current example, we may start to preoccupy with our subjective social inadequacy and feel depressed for being socially inept that causes the old friend rejecting us.

When we face threats that cause us inevitable pain, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) are activated.  The amygdala in our brain of the SNS system will be stimulated and cortisol, the stress hormone, will be increasingly released. The increase in activation of the amygdala will make us focus on the negative information of the threat and react with anxiety and worries.  It will also inhibit the normal function of the prefrontal cortex.  This will distort our objective appraisal of the threats and the aversive situation.  Our second arrow in the face of inevitable pain is partly related to the firing up of the SNS system.  When the SNS system is repeatedly fired up, there may be negative consequences to our physical and mental health.  There is an increased risk for us to suffer from different kinds of physical illnesses, such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, or cardiovascular diseases.  It is also more likely for us to suffer from anxiety and depression.  How can we reduce the chance of the second arrows shooting towards ourselves?

Before we know what to do, we need to understand that there is a calming and steadying system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to maintain our body to a resting, calming and steady baseline.  The activation of the PNS quiets the mind and facilitates our objective appraisal of the threats and aversive situations.  It also calms down the SNS system and helps the body to resume to a balanced state.  When we experiencing inevitable pain, we can try to stay with whatever we are experiencing in our conscious awareness, without reacting to suppress or transform it.  We can cultivate this by regularly practicing mindfulness exercises.  This will help to activate the PNS while we face threats or aversive situations and reduce the activation of the SNS system.  With a more balanced autonomic nervous system (including SNA and PNS systems), the negative consequences of our second arrows in the face of inevitable pain will be reduced. 

It is a lifelong lesson for us to embrace and accept our inevitable pain.  We all have experiences of shooting the second arrows into ourselves in the face of pain.  When we understand that sometimes pain is inevitable and we need to accept and embrace it, we gradually reduce the second arrows in ourselves contributing to our persistent sufferings.

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