Living With Chronic Pain
While we usually focus on our mental health in our Therapists Thoughts blog posts, here at the Centre we acknowledge that our physical health is intertwined with our mental health. This is why we also offer support services like massage therapy and podiatry here at the Centre. Something like chronic pain can have a huge impact on our mental health as it negatively affects every sphere of our lives. For those of you suffering from chronic pain, we understand how debilitating this condition can be. In today’s article, Centre therapist Laura Kelly-Walsh gives some tips to help sufferers manage their pain and live their lives positively. Please reach out if you need to.
Living with chronic pain certainly isn’t easy, and at times you may feel overwhelmed, like no one understands, or that life as you once knew it is over. Questions such as, “will the pain ever go away?” or ”will I ever get me back?” may arise; and enduring pain daily can take its toll on your mental health if you allow it. But fear not, there is a way to manage the symptoms, take charge, and live a healthy and fulfilling life again. Making some key lifestyle changes is essential to keeping chronic pain under control.
An understanding of ‘pain gates’ and widening your ‘window of tolerance’ is a good place to start educating yourself. Psychological interventions such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) are very useful here also. Depression and anxiety can go hand-in-hand with living with any chronic illness, especially chronic pain. The quality of your life may have diminished rapidly – less activity, isolation, or simply being in constant pain can take its toll, and you may start to give up hope. But hurt does not mean harm. Chronic pain is an over-amplification of the pain processing signals in your brain and doesn’t equate to tissue damage.
You’ll never know how you’ll feel when you wake up
You may never know how much pain you’ll be in when you wake up in the morning, but taking things slowly can help. Give yourself extra time to wake up gently and naturally. Instead of rushing out the door, cup of coffee in hand, set your alarm earlier, have a hot shower, stretch, journal and do a short meditation. Making this a morning routine sets an anxiety-free tone for the day ahead.
People may not understand
For the uninitiated, chronic means that the pain is ongoing. It may be relentless, day-to-day, hour-to-hour. So, when someone says, “hope you feel better soon”, please don’t feel like you have to put a brave face on, instead maybe try to explain that it’s a daily struggle, but that you do have better days.
Managing the pain
Managing pain involves a holistic approach. Medication is of course an option, but not for everyone, and shouldn’t be your first go-to. There’s plenty more you can do to assuage pain without the pills. Do go and speak to your GP about medication options if you feel you need to, though.
For the more difficult days, it’s imperative to have your self-care toolbox at hand. Pain patches, yoga, guided meditations, hot baths with Epsom Salts, regular massages, naps, essential oils, acupuncture, or even a cuddle from a pet – there’s a smorgasbord of options available. Get to know what works best for you and have your favourite resources at hand for when you’re having a tougher day.
You may not remember your life before the pain – it changes the jobs you’re able to do and the relationships you have. And no matter how tempting, try not to isolate yourself away from the world – languishing at home can leave you stuck in a pain loop and exacerbate the problem – pacing yourself and managing your daily energy output is key. Naturally, pain affects our lives and how we interact with people. Try to keep an open line of communication with friends and family – it might help remind you of who you really are, instead of someone simply trying to endure the day.
Sleep is so important for our bodies to restore health and to heal. Try to keep your bedroom as clutter-free and calm as possible. Keep all electronic devices out of the bedroom, light some candles and spray some lavender oil on your pillow to help you doze off at night. Read a light and enjoyable book instead of watching Netflix in bed. Any technology can overstimulate us and interfere with sleep at night, so try to put all devices (including your phone) away by 9.30pm.
As impossible as it sounds, try to focus on lowering the stressors in your life. Stress plays a huge role in how much pain we experience as humans. If you’re feeling particularly stressed, check in and pay attention to how you’re holding your posture and whether or not you’re tensing your muscles. Try to deepen your breathing – expand your stomach and breathe from there instead of short, shallow breaths from the chest.
Support can be a lifesaver for some people. Seek out other people going through the same experience for guidance, to share resources and help each other through the journey. There are plenty of support groups available, so research if any are local to you. Even reaching out and calling a friend to vent can always help lighten the load.
It goes without saying that it’s of ultimate importance to keep moving – staying stagnant on the couch or in bed can only perpetuate the pain and worsen the pain cycle. Try to incorporate gentle daily exercise to keep the blood flowing and muscles loose – even a short walk should be enough to start with, and slowly build up your daily activity without overdoing it. Increasing your activity can help make the pain more bearable and create a positive upcycle of increased activity and tolerance of pain. Remember – pace, pace, pace.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
The basis of CBT is about helping people set realistic goals and work on identifying unhelpful thought patterns. The techniques you learn through CBT can help to reduce or minimise your pain and maximise your productivity levels.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
How you think about your pain is very important. Catastrophising – telling yourself you’re enduring the worst pain imaginable or that it will never end – won’t help matters. An important skill is to accept your situation and focus on how to improve your quality of life to decrease the emotional burden. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be a huge help here. Try to change your attitude from victim to action-taker, and focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t.
Understanding that pain, fatigue, and tenderness can be okay and not a sign of damage, can help you engage in a healthier lifestyle. While there may be no single cause for the pain, an integrative approach of lifestyle changes, medications and therapeutic interventions such as CBT and ACT can dramatically improve your quality of life.
Talk with your doctor. From medication to physical therapy, there are plenty of treatments to transform the way you live and handle the stressors associated with living with pain. If you embrace and don’t resist it, you are sure to live a hopeful, healthy and happy life.