What can you do to ease chronic pain in addition to your doctor visits and medications? This brief video (6.5 minutes) discusses the challenges specific to living with chronic pain and offers 9 simple, non-medical approaches to pain management that you can initiate and monitor yourself. I made this video last year, but thought it was worth a re-post. I hope you enjoy it.
The questions that have come up for me again and again while living with chronic pain are: when will I be healed? will I ever be healed? what does true healing consist of, anyway?
At first, I assumed I knew what healing is. It's when the pain stops–when my condition ends and I get my body back.
But is that really one specific moment? If my pain left me tomorrow, would that mean I was completely healed? What if my pain comes and goes? What if it stems from an unidentifiable source or condition? What does that mean about healing? When is better all better?
I think that often we define healing as an end result only. Yet it’s really hard to point to.
Is there a day in which I am not healthy and then suddenly, the next day, I am?
Is Healing A Single Moment in Time?
It seems to me that, rather than happening at a particular place at a specific time, healing happens every moment we are aware that we need to change in order to recreate the inner balance that constitutes health.
Healing is the process of change that we undergo day by day in our efforts to reconnect with wholeness and health. It may mean letting some things go–habits, hates, hurts–and it may mean adopting an entirely different lifestyle.
It is the process by which we create a new relationship with our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and our spirits as demanded by some crisis in life, whether it be illness, trauma or injury.
Healing is the process of working with, dealing with, loving and having compassion for the renewed body and the new self that is trying to emerge through our pain and illness.
When we are in chronic pain, our pain is inseparable from our lives, but so is the process of creating wellness. Healing is about who we are becoming. So healing, like pain, is inseparable from living. We are, paradoxically, living with the pain and healing ourselves little by little at the same time.
The Nature of True Healing
The first day of healing is when we choose to hold our pain, our bodies, and ourselves differently. The day we decide that we will be compassionate and attentive to what our body needs, what it is asking for, and how it is trying to change.
After years of seeing only infinitesimal improvements in my pain levels but finding deeper meaning in my life and in my relationships anyway, I now believe that true healing goes beyond just repairing the physical mechanism. It involves all layers of the self, since we are like a wonderfully intricate pattern of interwoven parts–mind, body, spirit, emotions–all merging and converging. The body acts as the obvious vehicle for the self, but there really is no point of separation. We are it and it is us.
Healing severe or chronic pain, I believe, includes transforming our relationship to the pain, and, ultimately, it is about transforming our relationship to who we are and to life. Healing requires change. The stronger the pain and the longer it has been around, the deeper the transformation that is being called for.
So, when are we finally healed? Maybe there is no “final” to it. Maybe it is a lifelong process.
On the other hand, maybe some healing happens every minute of every day, including today. What we can point to as our healing is already present. It is what we choose, what we do, what we think, and what we feel right now as the most positive response to our body's need for comfort, for restoration, for endurance, for rest, for soothing, and for change.
It's not easy, and the way is not always clear, but the process and unfolding of our best choices each day–all of that–is the healing.
Adapted from The Pain Companion, by Sarah Anne Shockley
Image: Endymion, John William Godward, 1893 (Wikimedia Commons)
Day One: The Door Inside
There is a door inside of me I cannot see, but I know it is there.
Somehow, this pain points to that door. Maybe pain is the door.
I can open the door now or later. I can pull it open only a crack, or I can walk right through to see what is there beyond the pain.
In my imagination I reach out inside myself, take a deep breath, and turn the handle.
I find a way to express what I sense beyond that door. I write about it, or I make a drawing or collage, or I sing, or dance, or act it out.
Today, somehow, some way, I connect with what lies beyond the door of pain within my secret self.
Day Two: Telling My Story
Have I ever told my pain story in full to anyone?
Why not? Was I afraid they wouldn’t want to know, or they wouldn’t really listen, or understand?
Today, I will find someone to talk to. A friend, a sibling, a therapist. My dog or cat. The tree in the backyard.
I will ask them to listen and not try to make it all better, not try to fix me–just witness me in silence. I will let them know that this is the most helpful and healing thing they can do for me right now.
Today I will tell someone my whole story without holding back for their sake.
Day Three: Reclaiming Life
I have given pain a lot of room in my life. In a way, I moved over for it.
Perhaps pain will not readily move over for me, and I understand that. It is the nature of pain.
So, today I do one thing I love to do, even if it’s only for a brief time, and even if pain has to come with me.
I would rather share the experience with pain, if I must, than not have it at all.
Today, I reclaim the art of enjoying my life.
Day Four: The Rant
Today, I give myself ten full minutes to rant and rage about this pain, this condition, this situation.
Shouted, whispered, written, or howled. I let it out.
In the shower, into my pillow, typed into my computer, or in my car.
Ten full minutes.
And then I breathe.
Day Five: Laughter
Today I reclaim something valuable I thought I had lost to pain, something no one can live well without.
Today, I find at least one reason to laugh.
And then another, if I can.
Today, I reclaim my humor, and my ability to be lighthearted, even if it’s just for the duration of a silly movie.
Because if I can laugh once, even in this pain, I can laugh again.
Day Six: Freedom
Just for today, I stop arguing with life about my situation.
I stop fighting with the pain I am in.
I stop fighting myself.
I take a deep breath and ask: What would I like instead?
Then I give myself the closest thing to it that I can find or create.
Day Seven: Returning to Life
It’s easy to forget what life was like before this pain, as if pain has always been here, and always will be.
But that’s not the truth. This pain has not been here all my life. There was a beginning. And since there was a beginning, I can imagine an end.
Today, to remind myself that there is life outside of this pain, I find one thing I used to love doing before the pain came and I find a way to do it, even a little, and even if it’s only in my imagination.
And tomorrow, I do it again. And every day that I am able. I remind myself of who I was. Who I really am. Who I want to be.
Image courtesy Pixabay
Sometimes I feel invisible in my pain–as if I'm not living in the same world that other people live in, and when they look my way, they don't really see me. It feels as if I have disappeared into the pain.
Sometimes I have to ask myself, am I still here?
People see my outer appearance, of course. They see a body. Maybe it looks tired, or maybe I’m walking with difficulty, or maybe I have a pained expression, or maybe I look perfectly normal to them.
But whatever others see from the outside, it never tells the whole story. No one sees the pain. Pain is invisible.
And, because there is a cultural bias against showing pain, I do my best to help it stay invisible. I hide it, I minimize it when I do speak of it, I don’t go out when I’m at my worst, and I avoid asking for help because it embarrasses me. Because I look fine to most people from the outside.
This invisibility of the pain experience has a very strange side effect. It makes me feel unseen.
A Subculture of Untold Stories
Those of us living with chronic pain constitute a huge subculture of untold stories and unacknowledged experiences. We live among others who do not have to contend with constant pain. Our private struggles with pain often remain unrecognized and unknown.
They are, for the most part–except among our own kind–unwelcome news.
There is, then, a massive underground community of people hiding their pain from the rest of the world. There are legions of us. We are often unidentifiable, even to each other. We are at work. We’re on the bus. We are the people who cross the street too slowly and make drivers impatient at the stop light. We’re the ones who keep dropping things we should be able to carry, the ones who leave birthday parties early, or don’t show up at all. We are the ones who can’t carry our own groceries, and who need designated parking spaces and special seats at events.
We’re still participating in life, however marginal our participation may feel at times, but we’re also in many ways living in another world not of our own choosing. We are unable to fully engage with life the way we used to, so we often feel inadequate and excluded.
We Can't Heal What We Refuse To See
It isn’t just because our pain is invisible that we feel different and “other”. It’s also because pain is not acceptable in our culture. It is something we immediately try to end. We don’t even question the idea that all pain is inherently bad.
But those of us in chronic pain are carrying the unacceptable. We are living in pain. So if pain is considered bad–a mistake, an error, a malfunction–how are we to view ourselves?
We live in a society that not only refuses to feel its pain, it refuses to acknowledge it. And that drives it underground. It drives us underground. We don’t talk about it. We are often ashamed to be in pain. We try to hide it. We hide ourselves. We become outcasts in our own lives.
We Represent The One Thing No One Wants
Pain is one thing no one wants to have or wants to see. Because of that, because of pain's unacceptability, those of us in chronic pain can feel as if we're exiled from normal life–and sometimes we have exiled ourselves to make it easier for everyone else.
But pain is so much heavier and darker when the weight is all on one person. What we, as a society, refuse to acknowledge, refuse to see, refuse to talk about, can’t heal.
Maybe as we tell our stories, we can weave them back into the mainstream–weave ourselves back into the mainstream. In the way that disability awareness has grown in the past decades, we can contribute, even if only in small ways, to increased awareness of the chronic pain epidemic every time we speak up, or write our stories, or create a piece of art that expresses our feelings.
Perhaps, in some way, part of the longevity of our pain is due to the fact that it is has been effectively cut out of the common experience of life, the commonly accepted experience, that is. So, maybe, those of us living with chronic pain will find ways to include ourselves and our pain back into life, as individuals and as a community, in order for us to heal, in order for pain to heal.
And when that happens, when we feel more included in life and accepted even in our pain and with our pain, we will not have to be invisible any more. And, we may find that coming out of the shadows, so to speak, in itself, contributes to more rapid healing and a swifter end to suffering on all levels.
Image: The Mirror, Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1896 (Wikimedia Commons)
DAY 1: The Turning of the Wheel
I am part of the great wheel of life.
I don’t understand why I’m here in this pain, but I do know that as long as I am on the wheel of life, as it keeps turning and turning, my life turns with it, from dark into light, from pain into release.
I notice what has already turned for the better, and if something has turned for the worse, I remind myself that this is not the end of the story. The wheel is still turning.
The wheel turns from dark to light, from light to dark, but each turn into the dark does not have to be as dense or as heavy, as the last.
I am on a journey. This pain is part of it. This wheel, this turning, is part of it.
DAY 2: Eyes to the East
The way is dark and I feel lost. How do I know if I’m headed in the right direction?
If I keep following the path of what feels best to me, what feels right, I will get there. If I keep my face to the East, the sun will eventually rise.
How do I keep my face to the East? I continually raise my eyes up. I keep looking toward the horizon. I keep following what feels best for this day.
Today, I notice which direction my East lies in by finding what inspires me, what makes me feel even a tiny bit more relaxed, and what feels like a lightening of the load, however slight.
DAY 3: The Glimmer
If there’s a way in, there’s a way out.
I got into this pain, and I can find my way through and out.
Today, I consciously look for the light at the end of the tunnel – even if it’s only a tiny glimmer.
As long as I can see a glimmer I can walk toward it.
If I can’t see the glimmer yet, it might mean I have my eyes squeezed shut, or it might mean that I have to walk on just a bit further.
Because there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark it appears, and no matter how long the journey seems to be.
DAY 4: The Road
Today, I am one day closer to healing than I was yesterday.
In ways I may not understand yet, I am a day wiser, a day further down the road, a day nearer to whatever it takes to get to the other side of this pain.
I affirm this today.
I congratulate myself for taking the next step, no matter how small or how tentative; for finding ways to trust life; for finding new ways to express myself, and for finding ways to trust the path I’m on, even in this pain.
Day 5: One Good Thing
Today, I find one good thing I can hold close to my heart and love, despite the pain.
I find one thing that is outside of this pain bubble I live in, that is still there for me, unscathed and untouched.
A smile from a friend.
A child’s drawing.
A beautiful piece of art.
The night sky.
DAY 6: I Exist
I am here. I exist.
Pain is here with me, but pain has not erased or diminished me.
Pain has its own space, and I am in that space too, with pain, but I am also everywhere pain isn’t.
I am larger than this pain, and I exist beyond it and outside of it too.
DAY 7: Remembering How to Dream
Today, I remember how to dream.
What would I prefer to be doing if I could push a button and stop the pain? Where would I most want to be and with whom?
Today I do something that shows I believe in my dreams of the future. It may be only a small gesture, a purely symbolic act, but it is a beginning.
This gesture says: I will get through this. I will survive, I will endure, I will grow, and I will dream my way into a life that includes more and more of who I want to be, even as I move through the pain to get there.
Taken from 30 Days Of Living Better While Living With Pain, Sarah Anne Shockley, 2017
Image: Our Lady of the Cow Parsley, Elizabeth Sonrel (1874-1953)
recognized, or if they are deemed unimportant compared to our physical pain–we may feel there is no opportunity or invitation to express them.
Sometimes, we feel ashamed for even having them. We wonder, am I the only one who feels this way? Why isn’t anyone talking about this? We are asked about our physical pain, our conditions, or our illness, but our emotional suffering is often not addressed, or even acknowledged.
Climbing Out of the Well
Often our feelings seem overwhelming and too much to handle along with living in physical pain. Sometimes we fear our own emotional depths for that reason. Our sadness and loss may feel so huge that we fear allowing ourselves to feel them. We fear we might get lost in our feelings, be swallowed up, or fall into a bottomless well and not be able to find our way out again.
So, we might avoid feeling the emotional side of physical pain because it just seems like too much to deal with. We feel alone in our angers, our shames, our sadness, and our fears. Over time, it can seem like we’ve always felt this lost or this lonely or this helpless, and that makes it more difficult to feel hopeful about the future.
We may numb ourselves out to try to keep the additional pain away, but at some point, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that living with chronic pain is affecting us deeply on an emotional level. Holding all of these emotions at bay may help us cope in the short run, but may not serve us in the long term.
Avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away. Pushing emotions down can increase feelings of depression (we are literally pressing down or de-pressing them), and can lead to a continued sense of victimization and hopelessness. Not responding to the very real emotional needs we have during this difficult time is almost like victimizing ourselves by refusing to “hear” our own cries for help. We withdraw further from life, and from ourselves, as a result.
We don’t necessarily have to melt into a puddle of tears in order to express these emotions. (Although sometimes doing that can be very cathartic). We can use movement to express them, like dance or gestures. We can use sounds, and tone or sing them out. We can draw or paint. We can speak our deepest feelings out loud, or write them in a journal.
It’s very helpful to let ourselves be heard – maybe by a close friend, but certainly also by ourselves. We read our words out loud back to ourselves. We listen to our tones or song. We pay attention to our movements as we express. We become our own therapist, our own witness.
In this way, we learn to be with ourselves in pain in a more emotionally healthy and balanced way. In expressing and sharing, we find we are not the only ones who are going through these emotional challenges. In expressing our emotional pain, we allow it to release and move through us and out. This relieves some of the stress we're under, allows us to practice compassion toward ourselves and honor rather than dismiss the very normal, very real, and very deep emotional responses we have toward this challenging journey we're on.
Image: Ingeborg, Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1868
Some of us in chronic pain have spent our lives living as lone wolves. We’re very resourceful and independent, we don’t ask a lot of others, and we tend to be fairly comfortable with being alone.
It comes naturally to us to take care of ourselves, and not be a burden to those around us. We don’t rely on others in order to be okay with ourselves. All that is well and good until–
–we get injured or fall ill or have an operation, and find ourselves in ongoing pain, functioning at a much lower capacity than we are used to.
Being Weak is Not Who We Are
And that’s not just hard on our bodies, it’s hard on our identity and our way of being.
When we have to ask for support, whether financial or emotional, or we can’t do all the things we used to be able to do easily, we feel as if we our failing–failing others, and failing ourselves.
We believe in independence and self reliance. We subscribe to the DIY attitude toward everything, including healing. We want to make everything work out right now, today. So we may perceive our pain and vulnerability as a weakness–and that feels both terrifying and intolerable.
It’s very hard, it’s incredibly frustrating, and it can be very scary when you’ve been used to being the one upon whom others rely for support, for constancy, for dependability and now you can't fully rely on yourself or your body.
I'll Handle This On My Own, Thanks
And when we're in pain, we want to revert to our lone wolf mode, because it’s the most natural thing for us.
We pull away and withdraw from others to lick our wounds alone–to heal by ourselves. We try to cover up how much pain we are in, we don’t ask for much help, and we keep going as if we are not actually in terrific pain.
But pulling away and going solo isn’t always helpful in this case.
Because no one can really understand what we’re going through if we don’t share with them.
Because if we don’t ask, how will people know we need help?
Because if we don’t admit we need that help–even to ourselves–we will over do it, strain ourselves, and possibly create more pain.
Because not letting others be there for us sends a message that we don’t trust them, and it cuts us off from loving support – both emotional and physical.
So, as unnatural as it may feel for some of us, we might want to do something a little radical, a little uncomfortable. We might want to consider adopting more of a pack mentality, if only for the time we’re in pain.
Just This Once...
In a pack, even a small one, we can find solace from sharing our story, and listening to others who have had or are having similar experiences.
We may find we have something beautiful and resourceful and insightful to offer when we open up and allow ourselves to express the pain we’re in and how it has affected us.
We learn that asking for help is not always a burden, and that others sometimes find meaning in being there for us.
We find increased health benefits from the greater emotional well being we can gain from finding a pack that includes us, instead of excluding ourselves from the company and support of others.
If we can release our lone wolf mentality just a little–release the belief that we have to go through it alone–do it alone–find our way alone–we can discover that that there is community out there, there are helping hands, there are common experiences.
We may discover that accepting some help now and then doesn’t mean we’re weak, it means we’re connected–and that is always a strength.
And when we're out of pain, we can always go back to being the lone wolf again, of course–if we still want to.
Image: Naturworks (Pixabay)
We may not be able to end pain overnight, but we can find ways to make life easier for ourselves during the time we are living with pain. Here are some approaches I've found useful over the past nine years.
Slow Way, Way Down
Slow down. A lot. Be willing to not do a whole lot.
If you’re a an active person, a parent, a manager, an athlete or anyone else used to moving fast, being a leader, or getting a lot done, this is really hard. You have to be fairly ruthless with yourself. You have to stop yourself from taking care of everything, making sure everyone is alright, organizing things and being a Type A. You just do.
It’s time to let other people do things for you, even if they do them badly in your opinion. That just has to be okay for now. Doing things perfectly isn’t necessarily perfect right now.
What’s perfect for you is giving yourself a break and letting go of taking care of everything you used to take care of.
Simplify life as much as you can, cutting back on any and all things that absolutely don’t need doing right now.
This usually means changing priorities and re-categorizing many things right off your to-do list. When in acute pain, what remains on the list (after personal hygiene and eating) might be only one or two absolute necessities in a day.
I’m not kidding. One or two absolute necessities. Going to one appointment. Making one important phone call that requires organization and brain power. Resting the remainder of the day.
Let Go of Your Schedule for Healing
It is the nature of chronic pain to stick around.
It requires a certain kind of emotional balance to neither insist that pain leave (and be constantly disappointed) nor give up hope altogether. The best way I have found to handle the fact that pain isn’t leaving is to let go of my scheduled healing date.
As much as we want it to end right now, our ideas of how long pain should stay don’t seem to be of much concern to pain. Pain has its own purpose, its own timeframe, and its own requirements for what needs to happen before it will leave. We only end up discouraged if we keep noticing how long we’ve already been in pain, and fretting about how long it will be before we’re out of pain.
This doesn’t mean we give up hope, not at all. But I’ve found that a better way to be with pain, and one which, paradoxically seems to ease it, is to resolve to give it the time it needs.
Understand Your Pain-O-Meter
I suggest that you get in touch with your inner Pain-O-Meter. Basically, this means becoming familiar in the most intimate terms with what actions, feelings, and stressers trigger or spike your pain. When you are intimate with your pain triggers you can do a better job of regulating what you say yes and no to in any given day, and when to best schedule any activities you plan on doing.
The most useful way I’ve found to monitor my pain levels is to keep a pain diary. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, just a way to note down the time, type of pain, and level of pain you experience over the course of a day and continue this for at least a week. This is most useful if you also note your current mood, what you’re doing, and any stressers present at the moment.
This way you can correlate what you are feeling and doing, the time of day, when you rest and when you’re active with how these affect your pain levels.
Tracking your pain makes you aware of any recurring patterns that you might otherwise not have noticed. You can make a little more sense of your pain rhythms during the day. Noticing them allows you to plan around them.
You can download a free template here which you can use as a basis for your pain diary.
Hold Yourself Blameless
Finally, but not least importantly, give yourself a lot of emotional leeway. You are doing the best you can to deal with the daily challenges of living in and with pain and it’s not easy. You are healing as fast as you can, even if that seems like a snail’s pace to you. If you could do anything better than you are now, you would.
Give yourself credit for getting through another day. You are walking a very difficult path. You may not understand the reason for this path, but, one way or another, you are on it.
Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a small child who is hurting. Be gentle, be reasonably positive, let yourself have a good cry when you need it, then brush the dirt off your knees and lift your eyes off the ground.
Yes, sometimes we wish we could have a kind parent or friend do this for us, but often we have to do this for ourselves. And we can. And when we meet others in a similar situation, we can offer them the kindnesses we also desire for ourselves.
This post adapted from the author's free ebook, Living Better While Living With Pain, 2017
Also available in print and audio formats.
Image courtesy Pixabay
You're Not Lazy
It's not that we can never keep our promises to ourselves, or that we're undisciplined, or lazy, or bad people.
It's because we usually choose things we haven't been able to do yet to go on that list of New Year's resolutions. The challenging things we just haven't quite gotten around to. Ever notice that? The easy things - the things we know we're going to do regardless - don't usually end up on our list. We don't write them down because we don't have to. They're a given.
Resolutions are things that require commitment, resolve, and tenacity.
And sometimes making that list really works. We get some good momentum going and we really do keep those resolutions.
But a lot of the time we don't. Not because we're awful people, but because if our resolutions were easy to keep, we would have done them already.
But I Don't Want To Be In Pain This Year
And here we are in a new year, and we're dealing with pain. It would be great to make a resolution for this year to be pain free, wouldn't it?
How do we do that? If we make a resolution to be pain free, if we put that on our list, we almost immediately feel a sense of futility. How can we make that happen? How can we commit to something we feel we have very little control over?
In my experience, pain is the uncooperative factor in that resolution. It just won't be ordered around.
It's not that we aren't strong enough or we don't care enough or we're not trying hard enough. It's that pain keeps its own timetable, has its own longevity, and its own purpose. We certainly may not understand what that is, or how that is, or why that is, but it seems to be so.
Pain will take the time it takes.
Let Go Of Resolutions
So, this year, a wonderful resolution would be to let go of resolutions and just be with what's in life right now, even if it includes pain.
Instead, we might make a resolution to stop fighting the big battle. This isn't the same as giving up or giving in or giving over as if we are crawling into our pain and disappearing inside it. Not at all.
Giving up the battle with pain doesn't mean surrender, it means taking the energy we've been putting into resisting and fighting the situation into accepting that it's here now and in finding ways to partner with pain and work with it as a messenger and a natural part of our healing path.
Why would we want to do that?
Because as long as we choose to do battle with pain, the battle will continue. When we stop clenching down on our pain, trying to stop it, and trying to fight with it, it doesn't have to fight with us quite so much. When we allow pain the time it needs, when we stop resisting its presence, it seems to begin to complete its mission faster.
Make Peace With Pain
Now maybe what I just wrote made you feel uncomfortable, or angry with me. Maybe you think I don't understand how hard it is. But, believe me, I do. I do understand. It's relentlessly hard to live in pain.
But it's harder to keep struggling against it. Pain is already here. And, so far, pushing against it hasn't made it go away.
So, as a scientific experiment, right now, take a moment to release your breath (are you holding it?). Let it flow naturally, and just allow the pain in your body to be what it is, as it is, just for a moment.
Just for this moment, relax around the pain in your body. Allow pain to have the space it already occupies anyway.
It may be scary to you, and you may feel very vulnerable, but just for this moment, right now, don't fight with pain. It's still going to feel painful, but you're not fighting against it.
Notice you. And notice the pain. Coexisting. Making peace.
Consider making this year's resolution a non-resolution. A resolution of letting go, ceasing the battle with pain, and making peace with it. Being at peace with pain isn't a place of weakness or giving up. It's a place of great strength and, yes, even beauty.
Image: Circle Shape, Noella Roos Boris (Wikimedia Commons)
This post was updated from New Year's Resolution: Making Peace with Pain 1/8/16
I'm taking a short break from writing blog posts during the holiday season. I will be back in January.
All the best to you and your family, and all the blessings of the season to you!
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About Sarah Anne Shockley
© 2015, 2016 Sarah Shockley and thepaincompanion.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah Anne Shockley and www.thepaincompanion.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.