Whether your chronic pain is due to physical structural injury or neuro-pathalogical symptoms, the experience of feeling pain is very real. This pain can result in many emotions, including fear, frustration and despair. When this happens, a cycle is created in which an individual may fear the possibility of pain while doing daily activities, become anxious about the pain appearing, thereby causing tension in the body and mind, and increasing the likelihood that pain will be triggered. Once the pain is experienced, the individual may then feel frustration that it happened or despair that it will never go away, thereby feeding into the fear and anxiety associated with the pain. Here are three skills that can help you break the cycle and keep going:
1. Know your limits. Pain is your body’s way of signaling that something is wrong. Similar to having emotional triggers that rub abrasively against mental boundaries, the body sometimes develops sensitivity to physical triggers. Love theme parks? If you have nerve pain along your spine and ribs, you may still be able to sit on some attractions, but it’s important to know which rides might be too jarring and irritating for your injury. Hurt your knee? You can still walk around your favorite sandy beach, but recognize that you might need to stop and sit down more frequently so your knee can relax. It is important to have an idea of how much you can do before your injury starts bothering you. That way, you can still have fun, all the while pacing yourself or stopping what you’re doing before your body’s pain response is triggered.
2. Plan ahead, but live in the moment. Having pain does not always mean that you can no longer do the activities you love. It just means that you need to take extra precautions to accommodate your body’s new needs. For many individuals experiencing chronic pain, the pain is not experienced as a constant state of agony, but instead flares up due to a physical or emotional trigger. If you know your triggers or limits, you can plan ahead for them by avoiding them altogether, or taking precautions for how to handle them when they surface. That way, there is no need to worry about pain suddenly flaring up, because it will no longer take you by surprise. Time that you spent feeling anxious about the next surge of pain can thereby be filled with enjoyment and appreciation for moments that are pain-free.
3. Reframe your perspective. Letting the sensation of chronic pain consume your every thought and dim your positive outlook on life can be easy. After all, the pain is often tied to fear, anxiety and despair, all of which can give us tunnel vision, changing our perspective about the world, other people, and ourselves. Suddenly, instead of considering the wonderful opportunities we may discover in the world around us, individuals with chronic pain may be hyper-vigilant and afraid of the various ways their environment may cause a flare up. Previously enjoyable outings with friends may begin to induce anxiety as they wonder when the pain will come, if their friends will understand, or if a friend may hug them as they used to and involuntarily irritate an injury. Finally, individuals with chronic pain may begin perceiving themselves as incapable of performing their regular daily routines, and despair that they are too disabled to do anything worthwhile. If we maintain focus on the pain and worry about its return, we maintain a bleak perspective on life. However, if we instead focus on the moments in which the pain is not debilitating, we can acknowledge all the things we are still capable of enjoying in life. Fear of the pain implies that the pain is an unknown, a danger we can’t understand and can’t see coming. But with chronic pain, we can expect to feel the constant ebb and flow of hurting. If we know it is there, that it will return, then there is no need to be afraid. If we know our limits and plan ahead, we are prepared. We can shift our focus from the negativity of pain to the positivity surrounding all the wonderful possibilities life has to offer. Instead of a mountainous obstacle, it becomes a pesky boulder around which we navigate. The pain is simply another piece in the bigger picture of our existence. We must simply remember to breathe, rest, and most importantly, be kind to ourselves when faced with our body’s needs.