Mind Over Pain: When pain impacts your life
Pain, whether acute or chronic, affects our bodies and our minds. When we hurt physically, we experience a wide range of emotions, many of which are difficult to manage! If that pain is debilitating, we experience grief, loss, depression, anger, anxiety, and it can feel as though life will never be the same. This emotional turmoil has the effect of tensing our bodies and slowing our physical healing, so working through pain both physically and emotionally is very important.
In my practice, I work with sufferers of major injuries that have flipped their lives upside down, and who are coping with those struggles every day. I have learned a great deal from these clients about what helps with their experiences of pain, as well as the emotional turmoil that pain has caused in their lives. Backed by research, here are some suggestions for managing the pain you experience in your own life and fostering a more positive, hopeful outlook on your healing.
1. Forgive yourself for needing time to heal: My clients tell me often that they feel guilt and shame over being injured and requiring time to rest and heal, especially emotionally. Many times, they are better able to forgive their physical limitations than their emotional ones, and feel that they should be able to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." The side effect of putting this pressure on themselves is that they begin to lose self-confidence, push away those that love them, and stop participating in their favourite hobbies. They do not feel they truly deserve to heal because they are angry with themselves for being hurt. They start to resent their body, the source of their physical pain. When asked to practice self-compassion and truly forgive themselves for the pain they experience, they gradually experience more hope for the future. How can you begin to forgive yourself for the pain you feel? Take a moment to write down some of the thoughts and feelings you have about your body, your pain, and your hopes for the future. Think of a person you love; what would they say about how you see yourself and the messages you tell yourself? Are those messages fair, kind, and true, or are those messages harsh, critical, and perfectionistic?
2. Allow yourself to grieve the loss: Experiencing pain that has debilitating effects on your life is a loss, and it is acceptable (and healthy) to grieve that loss. Just like someone grieves the loss of a close loved one, it is important to allow yourself to grieve the loss of the comfort you had and the presence of pain. Think about what you would do if you were grieving the loss of someone close to you, a job, or a major life change. What kinds of things would be soothing, or helpful? What kinds of things are too much to handle? Allow yourself to experience these feelings in your own time.
3. Develop a positive mantra: To replace troublesome, negative thinking, it can be very helpful to have a few mantras at your disposal. Many of my clients report that writing those mantras down, such as on post-it notes on the bathroom mirror as reminders on their phone, helps them remember to focus on those mantras more often. Create your own, or use some of these suggestions as a jumping off point.
I am already coping with this pain
It is normal to feel sad or upset when I am in pain
Taking time to heal is not selfish, it is what I need to do to get better
I can get through this!
4. Create a "new normal:" For those who experience long-term pain, life changes considerably. The things that you were once able to do are sometimes lost, and this can impact many areas of your life (relationships, finances, self-care activities, hobbies, employment). For many of my clients, what they grieve the most is the loss of their "normal" life. The sad truth is that our lives change, sometimes unexpectedly, and we have to adjust to it. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if your life can't be the way it was exactly, it is not worth living. However, just as you have adjusted and made it through every other big life change you've experienced, you can and will get through this one! One client that I work with struggled most with the lack of family activities, due to financial constraints from not being able to work. He was incredibly saddened that he could no longer take his family out for meals, to the amusement park, or shopping, and felt that he was losing touch with what was so important to him - his family. When he stopped to imagine what he could do instead of those activities, he realized that he was still able to spend quality time with his family, but in a different way. He created a new routine - every weekend the whole family would pack a homemade lunch, go to the nearby park, and have a picnic outside. If the weather was bad, they would stay in and watch a movie, eat popcorn, and laugh. He realized quickly that he could spend time with his family, without spending money. Are there other ways to meet your needs for fun, socialization, and relaxation? Are there things in your life that you can still do, and do more of?
5. Practice relaxation, mindfulness, and breathing: When our minds are relaxed, our bodies are relaxed, and it becomes much easier to manage pain and heal. When we feel anxious and depressed, we tense our muscles up, breathe differently, and tend to focus on the negative. Breathing is one of the most important things we can do to manage our anxiety and our pain. The great news is, just by paying attention to how you are breathing in a given moment is often enough to let your body know that you are safe, and allow your breathing to become slower and deeper. Next time you find yourself feeling pain, do a quick 10-second check-in on your breathing. Is it fast or slow? Is it deep or shallow? Are you exhaling quickly or slowly? Take note of whether your breathing changes as you observe it.
One of the most helpful things you can try is to engage in guided meditation. Meditation helps your mind and body completely relax, and gives you something more positive to focus your energy on. It doesn't need to be long or complicated; there are many free meditation tracks on YouTube, such as this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxcKyzZYJ04
6. Get help: Pain is a difficult thing to handle on your own! Reach out to family, friends, or a counsellor for some help, someone to express your feelings to, and someone to help you develop a plan of action for healing from your pain. Sometimes, it helps to have someone close to you who can distract you, bring some humour into your life, or listen to you when you need to talk.