7 Ways to Change Your Relationship with Chronic Pain
There is a cost to chronic pain. Isolation sets in. Friendships get lost. Hobbies are forgotten. The struggle to find purpose and significance consumes your mind. These are just some of the reasons chronic pain becomes an enemy.
What if how we view chronic pain is the problem? Seeing chronic pain as the enemy of a good life may be making your pain worse, not better. There is a better way to manage chronic pain by changing your relationship with what seems to be a threat.
Everything the mind regards as a threat prompts the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord—to generate a warning so that we know that something is wrong. Pain, tremors, spasms, cramps, dizziness, blackouts, paralysis, partial paralysis, blurred vision, and sensitivity to sound, vibration, pressure, touch, and light are all options that the central nervous system has available to get our attention.
Remember that these symptoms are for getting our attention, not telling us what is wrong. You are not likely to find evidence for the pain in changes seen in an x-ray or MRI.
The Overactive Nervous System
Picture an outdoor floodlight that has a motion-sensitive device attached. The floodlight turns on when an animal walks through your backyard at night. What if that light came on every time a single leaf blew through your yard? If it did, you would know the sensitivity of the motion-sensitive device is off.
The standard healthcare approach to chronic pain focuses on the symptom—the sensation of pain—but not the cause. This would be like blaming the floodlight for turning on and solving the problem by cutting the wires to the bulb. Pain is not the problem; the problem is the motion-sensitive device, which is your central nervous system.
When you experience chronic pain, you are receiving a warning signal from your central nervous system that is not useful. Acute pain is helpful because that is something you should know. If you have a pebble in your shoe and it hurts when you walk, that is good information. Chronic pain is not relieved by something you can change; it is like a fire alarm that keeps going off long after the fire is out.
You benefit from knowing about acute pain. You don’t benefit from knowing that the ankle you broke 20 years ago in high school hurts when the weather changes, that light touch causes burning pain in your arm, or that your back is sore after shopping for 15 minutes, but not after 10 minutes. These are all signs of an overactive nervous system.
How to Change Your Nervous System
The good news is that your default setting for the sensitivity of your central nervous system can change. We generally regard emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations as facts—trustworthy information about what is happening within us. That’s a problem.
We automatically label what we experience as good or bad, like it or don’t like it. We link present-moment experiences with past experiences. We assume two things occurring together are related. Our back flares up, and we notice the weather changing; The temperature change must be causing the pain. After all, that is what happened last time the weather became cold.
This automatic categorizing, labeling, predicting, judging, storytelling, and rule-making that the mind does to organize, explain, and protect us is not necessarily correct or helpful. We can learn how to notice what the mind is doing when pain shows up and shift our perspective about the emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations we experience.
7 Attitudes That Can Change Your Brain
For most people, the idea that we have a relationship with our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations is a new concept. To practice changing the relationship we typically have, I ask patients to close their eyes, relax, and notice the physical sensations they experience in one specific part of their body. I then ask them to imagine what they notice is something they have never seen before as if this is their first encounter with their physical sensations.
To develop a new mindset, here are seven essential attitudes that can change your chronic pain from an enemy to something that comes and goes.
- Openness and Curiosity. Imagine walking through a museum full of items you have never seen or known before. As you walk, you are open, curious, and noticing everything there is notice with great interest.
- Non-Judging. As you notice various sensations, your mind automatically wants to categorize, label, and judge your experiences. To the best of your ability, set your judging mind aside. Thank your mind for trying to help, but focus on the details of your experience with openness and curiosity. You are just a witness to your experience.
- Letting Go. The explanations for your discomfort can become deeply held beliefs. Let go of your attachment to these explanations and your desire to be correct. Let go of your demand that life must be a certain way. Let go of your struggle to control pain.
- Acceptance. When we view something as a threat, we have no place for it in our lives. Acceptance makes room for our good and bad experiences, the wanted and unwanted thoughts, emotions, and sensations.
- Gratitude. Being willing to have what we experience and to be grateful for all that can come from what we experience will positively change us. Whatever we experience changes us, teaches us, and can be brought into our life story and made useful.
- Non-Striving. We want change to happen now. We are goal-driven, results-oriented beings. Let go of your expectation to defeat the enemy of chronic pain and master pain management. Be in the moment with what you are experiencing.
- Patience. We are not where we want to be and we do not have all that we want. Patience helps us trust that life will unfold and reveal what is next, but until then, we can relax and wait without complaint.
Have compassion for yourself as you begin practicing these seven attitudes. Practice with some upsetting, negative self-concepts, with your emotions that show up around family gatherings or work, and unhelpful thoughts that wake you up in the middle of the night.
The key to changing your nervous system is learning to be present, let go, and keep moving forward. (To learn more about managing your mind, click here.)