Three Fundamental Truths About Chronic Pain
People with chronic pain don’t experience pain like everyone else does...
- We have unusual amounts of it
- We have it for unusual lengths of time
- We have it for unusual reasons, (or no reason at all!)
As a result, we can sometimes develop distorted and dysfunctional beliefs about our pain over time, (I’m cursed! I’ll never get better! I’m all alone!) which can make our pain feel even worse.
The first step toward dismantling these beliefs and reclaiming the life we’ve lost is to get clear about what pain is and is not, and to accept three fundamental truths about it.
1. Pain is inevitable
No matter what course our lives take, pain — the physical kind AND the emotional kind — will be along for the ride. We’ll bang our elbow against a doorframe, slip and fall, or feel the heartache of losing someone we love or something we desperately wanted. Something painful will happen to us, because pain is a fact of life.
Therefore it’s unwise to approach our recovery with the goal of having “no pain.” That’s like saying we’d like a life with “no sorrow,” “no death,” or “no loss.” We can’t cherry pick all of the good stuff in life and expect to consistently avoid all the bad stuff. Part of being human means we get BOTH: birth and death, joy and sorrow, comfort and pain, darkness and light.
Pain is not like a light switch, which is either turned “on” or “off.” It’s like a dimmer switch that can be slowly adjusted up and down.
Right now our pain is likely dialed up way too high. Therefore our goal should be to dial it down again, (or dial up more good things in our lives to compensate for it) rather than focusing on finding an imaginary “off” switch.
2. Pain is instructional
Whenever we feel pain, our first instinct is usually to actively resist it. We tense up our bodies. We pull away from the sensation. We fight it. All of which can actually create more pain.
What would happen if we tried observing it instead?
This won’t necessarily give us more information about our physical health. Pain is not always reliable in that regard, (for example, it may give us warning signals about injuries that are not acute or body systems that are not actually malfunctioning.)
However, pain can be effective in telling us how our mental health is fairing and can be an excellent early detection center for when we’re feeling stressed, depressed, angry or exhausted. Therefore part of our recovery process should be to work on tuning into those messages; separating those feelings from the physical sensations and learning to proactively address them before they make our pain worse.
3. Pain feeds off our attention
The more we turn inward toward our pain and focus on it, the louder it becomes. The more we focus on that noise, the more thoughts we have about the pain, (Why is this happening? Why is this so loud? When will this go away?”) The more thoughts we have, the more tense we become. The more tense we become, the more pain we feel and the louder our body gets.
It’s a vicious cycle… but one we can interrupt.
Imagine having a leaky faucet in your house. It may leak all day long, but we’re likely unaware of it because there is so much other noise around us. It isn’t until the house quiets down at night that we can really hear it. Then, it may be ALL we can hear, burrowing its way into our head and becoming our worst enemy.
Part of recovering from chronic pain is to treat our pain like that leaky faucet. We can do that by staying present in the current moment and focusing on everything else happening in our lives, (for instance, by being mindful or practicing meditation) or by keeping ourselves occupied and distracting ourselves from the noisy, daily drips.
If all of this sounds easier said than done, that’s because it is. While the Bible tell us the truth will ultimately set us free, first it’s mostly going to annoy and challenge us. That’s the price we pay to transform the unusual into the ordinary, the distorted into something clear, and our pain into our past.
Interested in this topic? Please follow me on Medium to read more posts about chronic pain and my new book, Chronic Pain Recovery: A Practical Guide to Putting Your Life Back Together After Everything Has Fallen Apart, now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Google Play and Kobo.