MANAGING CHRONIC PAIN:
STOCKING YOUR TOOL BOX
For the first time in my life last winter, I let pain whip me. I panicked in an ER that wasn’t diagnosing or treating me. I fought the pain and in my own eyes, made a big baby out of myself. All that energy I put into pushing against what I couldn’t control (the pain and the ER) went right into the pain. It kicked me in the butt, and turned me into one. Never again.
Actually that was acute pain, which is nothing compared to chronic pain (3 months or more despite treatment). Either one usually requires two or more of four approaches to pain management.
The first is neurology: doctors can often resolve the source of the pain through surgery or anti-inflammatory medication. If not they can usually eliminate or reduce the experience of pain through the second method, anesthesiology: pain medicine in this culture, or if you prefer, alternatives like herbal remedies or acupuncture.
The third remedy for pain is physical therapy, which may include exercises or dietary changes by you, or manipulations by a chiropractor or a physical therapist.
When these three haven’t resolved the pain, you still have psychological pain management. How does this work?
We all know that pain affects emotion, behavior, and beliefs about what’s happening and why. But do you know that this works both ways? These things that we control can all raise or lower your experience of pain. These are your three sets of tools.
Chronic pain can produce negative beliefs that can be overcome by embracing positive beliefs. Discuss, meditate and deliberate on these thoughts until you believe them:
This too shall pass. Thank the Lord I am forgive—this isn’t punishment. God will heal me sooner or later. Meanwhile, I can take this. Thinking of others takes me out of the pain in my body. Despite my disability, I am important to my loved ones. I will bring good out of this bad situation. I can be a blessing to those around me. I am thankful for. . . .
- Relaxation training. Picture vividly in your mind’s eye a beach or lake or relaxing spot in nature you have loved. Feel the breeze, the sunshine, hear the birds. Add to your imagination conversations with God or your loved ones. (If the pain is real intense, imagine God feeling this pain with you, as when Jesus was on the cross.) Stay in your happy place mentally as long as you can, and come back soon.
Or, take slow deep breaths, and instead of your pain, feel the freshness and calm in your lungs.
Or, tighten and then relax one set of your muscles at a time, and then repeat, eventually refreshing every muscle in your body this way, and distracting you from the pain.
- Distract yourself by doing things that help others, and imagine or feel their appreciation.
- With your lifestyle, work to fill the voids of what you may have lost due to injury or illness causing the pain—job, money sex, social contacts, domestic functions.
Your emotions can respond to the pain, or to your new behavior and new thinking about the situation. The three biggest emotions to manage are fear, anger, and self-pity. Look at them as dashboard warning lights to signal your need to change your focus. How?
Go back to work on the Beliefs and Actions above, to hit the Mood, B-A-M! This flips the magnifying glass you’ve been using to focus your mind on your pain and your problems, so that now they seem smaller.
This breaks the negative cycle of PAIN à DISABILITY à DISTRESS à PAIN. You’ve created a cycle of your own: BELIEF à ACTION à MOOD CHANGE, BAM!
Join me in this resolving to train for pain: by practicing this so we can do it under the duress of pain when it comes, instead of giving it energy by fighting it, we will embrace it as our teacher. Then it will remind and motivate us to give ourselves an upgrade of the soul, an inner refreshment of what we can control, our beliefs, actions and moods. And as icing on the cake, this will refresh and our relationships.
Dr. Schmidt is a psychologist life coach with offices in Middletown, Lexington, and Shelbyville (mynewlife.com).