by: John T. Sorrell, Ph.D.
Are you among the millions of people across the United States who struggle with chronic pain? Feeling exhausted, frustrated, or fearing that all hope is lost for pain to go away? The answer to this question might be surprising.
Somewhat ironically, research on what helps people with chronic pain shows that pain reduction is not consistently linked to improvements of disability, physical and emotional functioning, and quality of life. What is linked to improvements in these areas of life for people with pain include changing how we live our life with pain and how we relate to pain and discomfort.
If your goal is to reduce pain so that you can get back to work, your family, or life in general, and that approach hasn’t worked yet, then STOP . . . NOW! Consider retooling your approach instead.
Below are 2 questions and 5 important tips that you can begin using today that will move you away from unsuccessful attempts to reduce pain and in the direction towards living your life in more deep and meaningful ways.
2 Questions to Ask:
- What is working for me in managing chronic pain and what is not? If you have had pain for 6 months or more, then no doubt that you and your team of care providers have done several different things to reduce pain and improve your life. Don’t stop what is working and worth your time, energy, and resources. Make a list of what helps and give the others the boot. If it’s not working, stop it. If it is working, keep it up.
- What can I control in my life with chronic pain and what is out of my control? An honest look at this question will help you identify and focus on doing what will give you the best long-term benefit in both managing chronic pain and your life with it. Think about this: When mother nature calls for rain, what do you do? You either stay inside, grab an umbrella, or accept that fact that you’ll get wet and you’re on your way. We don’t control the weather, but we do control how we respond to it. You can take this approach with chronic pain too. Below are some options to consider.
5 Important Tips:
- Make a list of your life values and consider how connected you feel you’re living with those values. When pain shows up in life, it takes us away from the things that matter most to us (our values). As a result, depression is common for those suffering with chronic pain because the source of joy, pleasure, and fulfillment is gone. Reconnecting with what matters to us, even if pain continues, has a tremendous benefit on our mood and brings meaning back to our lives. Reflect on the list of values you made and ask yourself what is one thing that you can do today that helps you feel more connected with that value. Reach out to a friend and catch up if you value friendships. Go out and sit in the garden of a community park if you value nature. Read a book if you value literature. The actions you take will be meaningful, help you reconnect what what’s important to you, and it will be nice to see your life blossom as a result.
- Build a practice of paced breathing. These are powerful ways to influence your body’s nervous system connected to both stress and pain. Spend 10-20 minutes a day pacing the breath to about 6 breaths per minute. Use a breath pacer (e.g., xhalr.com) and set the parameters to 4 seconds inhaling, 1 second pause, 4 seconds exhaling, and 1 second pause before the next cycle (10 total seconds for a full cycle of breath = 6 total breath cycles per minute). Make note of how you feel physical and emotionally when you do this.
- Practice Mindfulness Meditation. The 4 pillars of Mindfulness Meditation include 1) intentional, 2) present moment, 3) nonjudgmental, and 4) awareness. Mindfulness practice will help you anchor to the present moment where life is happening and train the brain to notice an experience without judgement. This may serve as a path for you out of your mind and into your life.
- Maintain good sleep hygiene practices. Sleep is often impacted by chronic pain. Feeling tired or exhausted in addition to having chronic pain can make the struggle so much worse. While you may not be able to control whether you fall asleep or reach deeper more restful stages of sleep while asleep, you can control the following:
- Establish a sleep schedule and stick with it 7 days a week.
- Get afternoon sunlight to help regulate your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
- Make sure your sleep environment is conducive of sleep; only use the bed for sleep.
- Get out of bed if you do not fall asleep after 20 minutes. Return to bed when your eyes feel heavy and try again.
- Ditch the phone and other devices in bed; take the television out of the bedroom too.
- Limit heavy meals a few hours before bed and no alcohol to help you feel tired.
- Have self-compassion and change your expectations. Life with chronic pain is difficult, disruptive, and will force you in directions you didn’t expect or may not want. Of course, this will cause anxiety, sadness, concern, or any number of different experiences for anyone who has chronic pain. Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself in a nice way. You are not broken, and you don’t deserve to be ridiculed – your experience has changed and, as a result, your approach in living your life with chronic pain needs to change. If it takes twice or three times as long to complete a task that was quick and easy in the past, change your expectations for time and energy it will take. It will take some pressure off that may not be necessary.
Now with this road map, let go of failed attempts to reduce pain and take some action towards getting back into your life! Happy trails.