Yes! You can get on with life even if you have pain that doesn’t go away. It’s not something you’ll be told by many people, so I’m sticking my neck out to do so.
You see, it’s not so much the pain that’s the problem, it’s what the pain means. If your pain means your body is broken, it will never be the same again, your pain is a sign of damage and more pain means more damage, or if it’s mysterious and you don’t know why it’s there, or when it’s going to go – then these are the real problems.
Chronic pain means pain that goes on, it’s NOT a sign that your body is damaged. It’s more of a sign that somehow the signals from your body are getting scrambled.
- The first step for dealing with your pain is to find out what it’s called. What’s your diagnosis. Now sometimes that can be difficult – you might get several names for your problem, but basically they all boil down to you having pain that’s not going away.
- The second step is to find out whether you’re doing any damage to your body, or is it just pain? This might mean asking difficult questions – it’s not a question of whether your pain will go up or down if you do things, because that’s a given. it’s a question of whether changes in pain intensity mean your body is being damaged. Most of the time in chronic pain it’s just pain, not damage. But check it out with your treatment provider.
- The third step is finding out what you’re passionate about – what makes you lose yourself for an hour or two. Is it reading a book? Gardening? Being a great parent? Driving?
- Then it’s three things:
- Noticing your pain, but just noticing, not getting caught up in what your mind is telling you about your pain. This means letting your attention go to the part/s that are sore, and noticing where it’s sore, where it’s not sore, breathing into the pain as you notice it, finding out about it’s qualities – sharp, dull, deep, prickly, burning. When your mind starts telling you things like “Ow that’s sore today” or “today’s going to be a bad day” or “I don’t want this pain!”, just notice your thoughts and then notice that you are having those thoughts. You can say something like “Oh listen to my mind, it’s telling me my body is sore today”, or “My mind’s having fun telling me what a bad day I’m going to have”. Whatever words you use, ALSO notice that there are parts of your body that are NOT sore. Check out your left earlobe, or the inside of your right elbow where the crease is, or perhaps your belly button. Give as much attention to these parts of your body as you do to your pain, no more and no less.
- Exercising for your mind. Exercise to correct muscle strength or length problems, or change posture or even just to be fit are not as important as exercising for your mind. Exercise gives your mind time out from words, it brings focus onto the way your body moves, it brings different perspectives into play – mulling over a problem while cycling, brooding when walking, pondering when swimming, all of these things help your mind take a break from being right all the time. And it’s funny how, when you let your mind play over ideas, how often it will arrive at a solution all by itself.
- Anything that helps you do what you’re passionate about – as long as it actually helps you DO that thing you’re passionate about! What I mean by this is that it’s OK to take a break in the afternoon if, by doing so you’re fully present when you spend time with your partner that night. It’s fine to delegate some things to other people, if by doing so you’re able to organise the special meal you want. If you know that you enjoy a massage, and if in doing so you are more able to relax over the weekend and go out socially, then that’s fine.
It’s up to YOU to decide whether a strategy is getting you closer to what you enjoy and love. Just watch for unintended consequences – sometimes it just feels so GOOD to push yourself really hard and get something done, then pay for it. That’s fine to do – IF you’ve decided that’s what you’re doing. If, on the other hand, you find this happening time after time and you don’t know how it happened, then it might be time to take another look at your planning and prioritising.
Now I haven’t made this advice up. It has developed from my studies of people who cope well with their chronic pain. They all had something they were passionate about, and all their coping was aimed at helping them get out and do it. They ALL used mindfulness (number one on the list above), they ALL exercised (number two on the list) and then they used whatever worked for them.
If you haven’t learned mindfulness, here’s a lovely set of mindfulness recordings you can use. And here’s some more