Chronic pain can feel hopeless. Kathryn Hogan offers 10 ways you can consciously make yourself feel better.
Chronic pain sucks. Your life and activities are limited. You have far less energy. You might be irritable, forgetful, and easily distracted. You might feel like you’re no fun to be around, that your life has lost the shiny parts that made it lovely before the pain started, that it’s not fair and that you’re trapped. And then a pain storm comes on …
There’s no magic pill that will alleviate suffering. That said, here are some coping techniques work for me, especially when my pain is really bad. You may already know them. But perhaps you’ll find something new here.
I hope they help you get through today, no matter how unbearable your pain is.
This is the single most powerful tool you have to improve your life, with or without pain. It will not make your pain better, but it will make you better, so that the pain doesn’t hurt you as much.
Meditation is about realizing that you aren’t the voice in your head; not the part of you that thinks in words, nor the part that feels pain. You’re so much more than all of that. Often we feel like a little pea rattling around in a big can. Meditation teaches us that we’re not the little forlorn pea, alone and small, rattling uselessly in something bigger than us. We are the can.
Mindfulness meditation is a great place for beginners to start. Mindfulness means being fully present in this moment, fully aware of it. Why would you want to be more aware of the present moment if you’re in pain? Because there is always more than just pain happening in this moment, no matter how big the pain feels.
This one is one of my favorites. It’s 20 minutes long and the woman leading it has a beautiful, pleasant voice. Here’s another, lead by Jon Kabat Zinn, who started the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, a meditation service offered by most major hospitals for people with chronic conditions. Look it up! There is probably one in your area.
Try it every day for a month. It’s a small commitment—a few minutes per day—and it could change your life.
2. Be Kind and Gentle to Yourself
Some days you will feel like you simply cannot get out of bed. That’s ok.
You may feel you have to cancel plans, which makes you feel guilty and ashamed and sad that you’re missing out. That’s ok, too.
You may not be able to work, despite desperately wanting to do something productive, to contribute, to have your old identity back. You may not be able to do productive things at all. It’s all ok. None of this is your fault.
Imagine if your pain was happening not to you, but to a child, or your pet, or someone you love very much and wish to care for. How would you treat that person? Probably with patience, compassion, gentleness and understanding.
Give yourself that same understanding, to the extent that you can. You are doing your best. Give yourself credit. Allow yourself to relax, even if it feels like there is too much to do and not enough energy to do it, even if your situation feels hopeless. Give yourself any gifts or comforts that you are able to. Do what you need to in order to care for yourself with love and compassion, as best as you can. You deserve it.
3. Distract Yourself
When the pain is really bad and you are desperate for relief, distract yourself with something fun and easy. Your brain is set up so that it can only focus on so many things at once. When you turn your attention away from pain—forcibly if necessary—then your experience of pain lessens.
I use easy, funny shows that I don’t need to think about, like The Simpsons or Friends or 3rd Rock From the Sun.
There are so many options. Why not try a few different things?
4. Have Sex
I know. You don’t feel sexy. You can’t concentrate enough to orgasm. You don’t feel like you can be a loving partner right now. You’re too stoned on pain killers. You’re just not in the mood.
There are many, many ways in which pain—especially chronic pain—erases your sex drive. There are also many, many ways in which sex can help ease your pain.
First, it doesn’t have to be with a partner. It also doesn’t have to be just your hand, even if you’re alone. There are many modern accoutrements for sexual exploration, and now is a great time to make use of them! The future is now!
Second, it doesn’t have to be goal oriented. Nothing has to happen for it to be successful. Be present with the experience, with your body, with the moment. Sex isn’t a performance, so don’t feel you have to perform. This can be a great way to integrate your burgeoning mindfulness practice into your daily life, to connect with yourself or your partner, and maybe to feel a little bit better.
Your body is beautiful. No matter how much it hurts, or how frustrated you may be, your body is a miracle, a temple. Giving yourself pleasure is a profound act of self-love. When we feel loved, we feel a little bit better.
5. Try Heat or Cold
Sometimes heat makes my headache worse. Through experimenting, I’ve learned that a bit of heat followed by a little bit of cold actually improves it for a short time.
Even a short application of heat, cold or both can help flush old blood, increase circulation and reduce inflammation. You may find a combination that provides even a tiny amount of pain relief when you need it most. And even that tiny amount may make a big difference! In addition, the long term benefits of increased circulation and reduced inflammation can mean that your pain begins to lessen on average, especially if it was caused by an injury, like mine.
Plus, having an extra tool to cope with pain, even something small, can help you feel more empowered. Studies show that people who feel they can improve their pain, even a little bit, experience it as less painful.
I can guess what you’re thinking. “You try laughing, you evil sadist,” or “What do I have to laugh about?”
I know. Sometimes you can’t laugh. But sometimes you’ll surprise yourself. Your favorite comedy movie might provide you with an incredible emotional release, and fill your day with joy. The pain might not be improved afterwards, but your ability to deal with it will be.
Sometimes you really can’t laugh. Sometimes, the stark, terrible reality of daily (or even constant) pain, stretching indefinitely into the future, is just too much, and you feel like you want to cry.
So cry. Cry your freaking heart out. Cry about the injustice and the terror and the sadness and the defeat. Cry about how powerless you feel, how desperately you wish for things to be different. Cry about the isolation that pain has forced onto you, the things you’re missing out on, the dreams that have been taken from you by this pain and it’s impact on your life.
These are awful, awful feelings. You have good reason to try and push them away, to deny them or cover them up or reject them. It may seem easier to pretend that the pain isn’t that bad, or that your life isn’t that bad because of the pain.
Feel this pain—not the physical, but the emotional pain caused by it. You will have to feel it, fully, someday. If you don’t feel it now, it will fester within you and you will have to feel it in the future, and by then it will have grown in intensity and toxicity.
Journal about it. Pray about it. Meditate with it. Sit with it. Talk about it, with a therapist or trusted friend. Do whatever it takes to excavate this terrible hurt.
It takes tremendous courage to do this, because the feelings can be so terriible. But it is so important. You have the potential to become a much, much better person because of the experience of pain, emotional and physical. Feeling all of these things fully is how you do that. It’s also one of the ways I’ve found of reducing the pain’s hold on me emotionally, and maintaining emotional equilibrium in my life.
8. No, Seriously. Meditate. Right now.
I mean it! Meditate! Start right now!
I know—you’ve heard it before. Doctors have suggested it off-hand, the same way they say you should eat fruit and vegetables, without any real feeling behind it. Maybe some of your weirder friends have suggested it, too. And it sounds dumb and uninteresting and you don’t see how it would help and you’re in too much pain, anyways.
I hear you. Really. I get it.
Here is a 7-minute, easy video for you. All you have to do is listen to it and try to follow along. That’s it! You can do it standing up, sitting down, lying down, or even walking around. And I promise it will feel good. Won’t that be a relief? Feeling good, amid all this pain?
9. Share your experience
This is scary, but important. There is so much guilt and shame that comes with chronic pain. It’s so easy to feel, at least subconsciously, like it’s somehow your fault. If only you tried harder to get better, or found the right treatment, or thought about it differently, your pain would be better and you could be yourself again and you could provide for your friends and family like you used to. If only you pretended your pain wasn’t that bad or pushed through the exhaustion, you’d be more fun, more productive, and therefore more worthwhile.
Sharing your experience of pain (and its emotional effects) can feel like sharing a dark, terrible, ugly secret. It can also feel like unnecessarily burdening the people you love.
But I’ve learned that the people who love me want to know what I’m going through. They want to know when I’m exhausted beyond all reason, so that they can do my dishes or bring me food. They want to know when I feel like it’s my fault, so that they can remind me that it isn’t. They want to share this burden, to make it easier for me, to strengthen our relationship.
And I would want to do the exact same thing for them, if our places were switched.
I discovered that my friends didn’t like me because I was funny, interesting, reliable, dynamic, ambitious, or any of the other superficial things that pain has limited in my life. They like me. They love me. Those other things are just gravy.
If you share this awful experience with the people you love, you may discover, as I did, that they love you back anyways. Truly and deeply. You may also discover just who it is that they love, and why. It’s probably different from what you think, and this discovery is likely to be incredibly liberating for you.
10. Remember it will be different someday.
The pain is bad now. But probably later today, or tomorrow, or the day after that, there will be a time in which it isn’t as bad. You will have good days. And someday, you may have lots of good days, all in a row. Maybe even for ever. Accept that it hurts now, and that it will be different someday.
This may seem ridiculous to you. Maybe you have yet to find the treatment that will ‘cure’ you, and even heavy painkillers barely make your pain tolerable. Or maybe you’ve been told that your pain likely will not improve.
But the basic truth of life is that everything changes. Even your pain.
Do what you can, enjoy what you can. Live every moment fully, be present, and see the beauty.
But in those moments when you cannot see the beauty because it just hurts too much, don’t give up hope.
Bonus: Break the Pain Cycle
I used to think that taking the absolute bare minimum of pain killers required to get through the day was the healthiest. Now I understand that, if possible, managing my pain better gives me higher quality of life.
The worse your experience of pain is, the worse of an effect it will have on your body by creating a fight or flight response and increasing stress. If it’s possible, give your body some time totally pain free. It can be worth taking more or stronger painkillers, using extra hot and cold, or other self-care techniques (with your doctors’ support) to try and fully get rid of pain, even for a few hours. Doing this can actually break the pain cycle, preventing acute pain from becoming chronic, or interrupting the continuous cycle of chronic pain. This can be an important key in recovery. I know it’s not possible for everyone—it certainly isn’t possible for me right now! But for those who are toughing it out with few or no painkillers, breaking the pain cycle could be a game changer.
Originally published on KathrynHogan.ca.