3 Ways to Weather the Internal Storm of Chronic Pain and Not Let it Define You
Pain is so all-encompassing, so constant, and overwhelming, it can be difficult to detach the pain from everything else in life, especially when it so deeply affects everything in life. From the outset, it may appear as if we entirely define ourselves by our pain. After all, it needs to be considered before, during, and after every task or activity, even the most passive activity. But this is part of managing our chronic pain, trying to live, and cope as best we can in spite of the pain.
When the pain takes over more than your body but your mind and spirit too, it’s natural to become depressed or struggle with our feelings and perception of ourselves. When so many dreams are reluctantly let go of because, now, after perhaps many years of pain, they cannot come true, it can be even easier to define ourselves as the ‘one with pain’.
Yet in doing so, letting go of the you that’s you, even subconsciously, as you navigate the lunacy that is living with a severe pain condition leads to a different kind of internal imbalance. Sadness, depression and even heavier thoughts about all the pain has affected, or taken away can churn relentlessly in your mind but only serve to make you feel worse. If your thoughts are churning like the darkest of skies, try the 3 techniques to help you calm the internal storm below.
Your Pain Does Not Define You
Pain may have made you sad, angry, feeling hopeless, and lost, or made your temper short at times, but pain is designed to get your attention, to make you take notice. Obviously with acute pain this is useful but with chronic pain the signals are on a vicious loop. There’s no reason for your body to be firing these excruciating signals but as it believes there is a problem, and danger, it reacts just the same.
Be kind to yourself not hard on yourself for even the strongest are weakened by pain, whether that’s hidden or not. Constant pain is like a toddler forever tugging at your skirt, and even the most compassionate of mothers would lose their calm equipoise after a decade or more of skirt-tugging. OK the metaphor doesn’t quite articulate the lunacy or limitations, the loss or the lack of living, or the seemingly insurmountable strength needed to keep going, keep surviving, in spite of pain, but attention-wise, it’s a constant pull. That alone would test the strongest of souls.
“It is true that pain often changes people,” says Dr. Linda Ruehlman, social/health psychologist and director of the Chronic Pain Management Program. “You may have lost some of the positive abilities that defined you. These losses are powerful and sad, and coming to grips with them is a process that will likely take some time. Don’t let the pain overwhelm your image of who you are. Sometimes thoughts can be so negative that you may have trouble realising that pain doesn’t define you.”
Remember What You Like About Yourself
Chronic pain and illness impacts everything so it’s entirely human to feel that you are ‘not yourself’. You may feel that others are also treating you like ‘the one with pain’, as opposed to the ‘old you’. In changing how you are treated by loved-ones can have such a huge effect. It acts like a subconscious confirmation that things will never be the same and you must now be this ‘ill person’.
You may even feel a sense of shame in having your condition, when our body doesn’t serve us as society leads us to believe, that is, it doesn’t ‘get better’, we can feel a sense a failure, no matter how unjust. “While you are adjusting to any temporary or possibly enduring losses or changes that are part of your chronic pain, don’t forget that you still have positive qualities,” says Dr. Linda Ruehlman.
“Remembering the positive may help you to cope and may decrease depressing thoughts. It can be easy to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive. Take some time to review what you still like about yourself.” You may have a great sense of humour but have become disconnected from that lighter side of life because of pain taking over. You may have stopped doing things you love, but in losing that part of you, you’ve lost a little more of yourself.
You Are Not Your Pain
Your pain may try to define you, it may, and likely has taken over your every waking moment, every sleeping moment too. We may not be what happens to us but must survive it. We are not the grief we feel, nor anger, loneliness or even loss. We are not the dark, rumbling storm that is our constant pain and sadness but we must weather it.
That weather may be, and probably is, the worst weather in the world but even on the most difficult days, even on your darkest days, the toughest, most challenging nights too, how you speak to yourself, the compassion you have for yourself, and ability to allow your feelings room to be expressed through all the challenges is crucial to wellbeing, resilience and your ability to cope.
Those storms might have run wild and torn through the skies of our lives, ripped out forests of hope and destroyed all in its wake but even then, we are not the storm. To paraphrase Pema Chödrön, we are the sky, everything else is the weather. No matter how you are feeling right now, you are not your illness. By virtue of being here and living through this at all, you are a miracle, made all the more miraculous for being so strong.
No matter the intensity of this particular storm, you’ll weather it. You’re weathering it right now. The storm may never completely abate but the worst days do improve, flare-ups do lessen, even the darkest days do eventually allow in a little light. Even the deepest despair will lift, even if only momentarily. You might be affected, made stronger, or even weaker but that’s not the point. The point is you’re already surviving, already weathering the storm like a champ. But if its a little too wild right now, read on.
If your thoughts are churning like the darkest of skies, here are three techniques to do calm the storm and cope with your internal weather.
Here are 3 ways to calm the internal storm of living in pain:
Calming the Storm with Visualisation
You are not your feelings or your moods, you are not your depression, your anxiety, your frustrations. You are not your pain. Make a regular practice of mentally stepping back form difficult feelings or dark thoughts when they occur. One technique used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is to distance yourself from the thoughts, to not engage with them by using this visualisation.
When the incessant chatter seems unending is to imagine your thoughts as leaves on a stream. Allow yourself to pause, breathing gently, evenly and smoothly, and visualise your thoughts as leaves floating down the stream. As the leaves are slipping by, watch without touching them or picking them up and thus engaging with them. Simply allow the leaves to float down the stream without affecting you and keep breathing, calm and present.
An alternative to this effective technique to visualise these feelings as passing clouds in an otherwise blue sky. See them pass, name them should it help you, then watch them pass without connecting to them. Let them go. Instead of stopping each thought, you allow it to pass by untethered, with you, in serene stillness watching the sky. Using Pema Chödrön’s quote is an empowering way to see this challenging situation, the lost life, and your response and feelings about it all.
Calming the Storm with Psychology
The following techniques are designed to help you learn to recognise the thoughts that only serve to increas.... I’ll expand on this more deeply but the first step in healing unhelpful thinking is simply to be aware of what you are thinking. Simplistic as it sounds, when you pause to notice what your mind is saying it creates a space between you and your thoughts, in turn affording you the opportunity of choice.
Worst case scenario worries make it even harder to cope with chroni..., more difficult to sleep at night, and also create such a increased level of tension that it is difficult to calm your pain, relax or feel any kind of joy. You may be having difficulties coping, not to mention years of ‘evidence’ that the pain is getting worse or your future is bleak but focusing on that, going over and over that in your head, not only makes you feel worse but increases your physical pain too.
The following technique is borrowed from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which was developed from CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and there is power in its simplicity. When your inner voice is telling you that it’s hopeless, that you’re getting worse, not coping, never going to improve or manage, or have [insert goal/hope/dream here], name the thought and say to yourself, “Ooh here’s the ‘I’m never going to improve/manage/cope/only getting worse’ ‘story’ again”.
The thought may still exist but after you redirect your focus to the present moment, you do not become caught up by it, follow it, end up on one of those horrid trains of hopelessness and depressing thoughts that only serve to make you feel a thousand times worse. See it as a story you tell yourself. If you feel stronger emotionally, you can handle things with more ease.
Another technique from psychologist Dr Russ Harris, author of ‘The Happiness Trap’ is to insert the phrase “I’m having the thought that…” in front of whatever negative thought you are having. The idea being that in doing so you see your thoughts to be just a collection of words that you are telling yourself so you are able to distance yourself from them.
Calming the Storm with Meditation
You may be put off meditation, or may have tried it and found that it wasn’t enjoyable at all, or simply too difficult to quieten the mind when in so much pain. Meditation is an essential part of my personal pain management but for many new to the practice, it is difficult to still the mind and quieten that busy internal chatter of thoughts.
If you’ve never meditated before but have heard of the many benefits for chronic pain patients, physical, emotional, spiritual, and neurological, and want to begin, one way to make it easier is to use a mantra or phrase to focus on, such as that of Pema Chödrön’s quote, “You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.” Having something use as a focus on is a useful tool to train your mind to meditate with far more ease.
Meditation can be like exercise to someone [blessed with mobility] who is unfit. When start the initial exercises, it’s hard and they may be put off by this, even quit. But just as they can soon increase their fitness and work out with more ease, you too in the practice of meditation will find the thoughts do diminish with a little perseverance, and it swiftly becomes far easier to do, and crucially, more enjoyable.
Focus on the breath, breathing gently, smoothly, evenly. Simply repeat that mantra or another phrase that is soothing to you. It could be “I am here, I am still”, or a single word, like “calm”, in your mind, as you sit or lie down if sitting is not physically possible or too painful, in stillness. It helps in the learning stages to use meditative aids, such as using soothing music, low lighting, or scenting the room with some essential oil or incense. Find what works for you and preserver, the ease does come and when it does, you’ll have added another powerful tool to your pain management kit.
Take comfort in the fact you are not alone. Handling pain at all is handling it well, and you, by virtue of being here at all, are handling it miraculously.